The recent decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Hoffman Plastic Compounds, Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board makes it plain that the Court's majority lives in denial of the social reality millions of working people face every day. The Court began by making worse an already bad precedent. As a result of a previous decision in the case of Sure-Tan Inc. v. National Labor Relations Board, millions of undocumented immigrants lost the right to be reinstated to their jobs if they were fired for joining a union. Now the Rehnquist Court says they can also forget about back pay for the time they were out of work.
The decision rewards employers who want to stop union organizing efforts among immigrant workers--the very people who've built a decade-long track record of labor activism, often organizing themselves when unions showed little interest in them. Their bosses can now terminate undocumented workers who join a union, without monetary consequences.
But the Court's logic goes further, willfully ignoring social reality. Today in 31 percent of union drives employers illegally fire workers, immigrant and native-born alike. Federal labor law may prohibit this, but companies already treat the cost of legal battles, reinstatement and back pay as a cost of doing business. Many consider it cheaper than signing a union contract. In the Court's eyes, however, retaliatory firings are not even a violation of law.
William Gould IV, former chair of the National Labor Relations Board, points to "a basic conflict between US labor law and US immigration law." The Court has held that the enforcement of employer sanctions, which makes it illegal for an undocumented immigrant to hold a job, is more important than the right of that worker to join a union and resist exploitation on the job.
According to Rehnquist, Jose Castro, the fired worker in the Hoffman case, committed the cardinal sin of falsely saying he had legal status to get a job. This lie, told by millions of workers every year, is winked at by employers who want to take advantage of immigrants' labor. It is only in the face of union activity that bosses suddenly wake up to the fact that their workers have no papers (and usually then fire only the ones involved with unions).
This decision isn't about enforcing immigration law, despite Rehnquist's pious assertion that employers can already be fined for hiring people like Castro. It's about money. When it becomes more risky and difficult for workers to organize and join unions, or even to hold a job at all, they settle for lower wages. And when the price of immigrant labor goes down, so do the wages for everyone else. The decision has already been misused by some employers, who have told their immigrant workers they no longer have the right to organize at all, or have illegally refused to pay them the minimum wage or overtime.
A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trust counts almost 8 million undocumented people in the United States. They make up almost 4 percent of the urban work force, and more than half of all farmworkers. The flow of workers across the border will not stop anytime soon. The National Population Council of Mexico reports that "migration between Mexico and the United States is a permanent, structural phenomenon--the intense relationship between the two countries makes it inevitable."
Sacrificing the rights of those workers will not stop people from crossing the border, nor end the need for the work they do. If they are to have legal status, the door to legal immigration must be opened and sanctions repealed. But come they will, regardless. The Court's message to them, however, is: Know your place. Do the work, stay in the shadows, accept what you are given and never think of organizing to challenge the structure that holds you in chains.
Since the fall of the House of Enron, Republicans have been polishing their populist patter. George W. Bush cast aside his patron, Enron CEO Ken "Kenny Boy" Lay, and proclaimed himself the champion of executive rectitude. When the Corporate and Auditing Accountability Act passed in the House, Republican Richard Baker crowed, "We have taken action. We have stood up to Wall Street."
This crowd has no shame. The bill--which lobbyists for big-five accounting firm Deloitte and Touche praised for not going "overboard"--fails to ban accountants from peddling consulting work to the companies they audit, fails to shut the revolving door between accountants and the companies they audit and fails to create an accounting oversight board with subpoena power and independence. As Representative John LaFalce noted, "The opportunity to enact meaningful reform had been passed, eluded and avoided."
The House pension bill was even more disgraceful. As Representative George Miller noted, it "doesn't deal with the lessons of Enron." It doesn't put employees on the boards of their pension funds, doesn't guard workers against biased investment advice and doesn't require immediate notification of large stock sales by high-level executives. Worse, it carves a huge new loophole in pension protections, and as Daniel Halperin, a pension law expert at Harvard Law School, notes, it will "basically gut" current rules that protect average and low-wage workers. After Enron, where twenty-eight executives walked off with more than $1 billion while workers watched their retirement savings vanish, the Republican version of reform will make it easier for the big guys to pocket lavish benefits while the workers get stiffed. The provision, no surprise, was championed by the business lobby and supported by Bill Thomas, the corporate bag man who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee.
Republicans are certain that token reforms and stentorian rhetoric will give them cover while they continue to bank the contributions of a grateful financial and business community. Many Democrats opportunistically voted for the Republican bills after their tougher reforms were voted down on virtual party line votes.
Now the Republican "reforms" head to the Senate, where Democrats are in control, but Enron conservatives in both parties are legion. Ted Kennedy offers a real alternative on pension reform, but Democratic finance committee chairman Max Baucus is already talking about a compromise bill that would accept much of the corporate agenda.
Meanwhile, House and Senate conferees are putting the finishing touches on a bankruptcy bill pushed by the credit card industry; it will make it much harder for working people to get a fresh start at a time when millions are losing their jobs. Democratic Senate leaders could (but probably won't) demonstrate their solidarity with working people by burying the bankruptcy bill instead of passing it. The power of money, alas, speaks to both parties.
Millions of Americans are appalled by the bilking of Enron's workers. And millions are concerned about their own pension savings. Progressives and labor should raise hell about sham reforms that actually help the big guys screw their workers. If Enron conservatives in both parties are exposed, voters might show them this fall that they are paying more attention than anyone thought.
BUSH'S SHADE OF GREEN
Chris Floyd writes: It's no mystery why the Bush Administration engineered the ouster of Robert Watson as chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in April. The White House had received an unsigned "recommendation" from ExxonMobil that Watson, who has been outspoken in the fight against global warming, had to go. But many were puzzled by the White House arm-twisting on behalf of Watson's replacement: Indian environmentalist R.K. Pachauri, who is a strong backer of the Kyoto treaty and even voiced approval of a campaign to boycott ExxonMobil. Why embrace such a candidate? Perhaps because Pachauri is something of an oilman himself. In January 1999 he was appointed to a three-year term on the board of Indian Oil Corporation Ltd. Pachauri's Tata Energy Research Institute has also formed a partnership with Monsanto to develop genetically modified mustard oil and collaborated with the Global Technology Strategy Project, an "environmental" group sponsored by BP Amoco, Toyota--and Mobil. Finally, as a member of a panel investigating India's Dabhol Power Plant, he voted against setting up a judicial inquiry into alleged illegalities involving government officials and the developer--a little ol' Texas company called Enron.
WATCH WHAT YOU SAY TO THE POST!
Schmidtgate began when mediawhoresonline.com published a link to a Susan Schmidt article in the March 20 Washington Post on special prosecutor Robert Ray's final Monicagate report. MWO regards Schmidt as hopelessly biased against the Clintons and in favor of their prosecutors. Seeing her Ray piece as a typical example of her bias, MWO urged readers to contact Schmidt. MWO then published an e-mail from one of the letter writers, claiming Schmidt had forwarded his letter, with a snide comment, to his immediate supervisor and the president of the college that employs him. Shortly thereafter another letter writer, an attorney at a prominent New York City law firm, gave a similar account of Schmidt's forwarding his letter to his supervisors. The Post's ombudsman, Michael Getler, then wrote a piece titled "Uncivil Wars" (April 21) focusing on the bad manners of some letter writers to the Post rather than on the substance of the complaints. Getler's only reference to the Schmidt matter came at the end, where he claimed that "too much" of the e-mail sent to Schmidt "falls into the crude to obscene bracket." So the Post has failed to take a position on the issue of one of its reporters trying to get letter writers fired because she didn't like the tone of their criticisms. The ombudsman declined to respond to an extremely polite e-mail inquiring about his silence.
They call us "self-hating" Jews when we raise criticisms of Israeli policies. Yet most of those Jews who risk this calumny as the cost of getting involved actually feel a special resonance with the history and culture of the Jews--because this is a people who have proclaimed a message of love, justice and peace; they feel a special pride in being part of a people who have insisted on the possibility of tikkun, a Hebrew word expressing a belief that the world can be fundamentally healed and transformed. A Los Angeles Times poll in 1988 found that some 50 percent of Jews polled identified "a commitment to social equality" as the characteristic most important to their Jewish identity. Only 17 percent cited a commitment to Israel. No wonder, then, that social-justice-oriented American Jews today feel betrayed by Israeli policies that seem transparently immoral and self-destructive.
Social justice Jews are not apologists for Palestinian violence. We are outraged by the immoral acts of Palestinian terrorists who blow up Israelis at Seder tables, or while they shop, or sit in cafes, or ride in buses. We know that these acts of murder cannot be excused. But many of us also understand that Israeli treatment of Palestinians has been immoral and outrageous. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes in 1948, and recent research by Israeli historians has shown most fled not because they were responding to the appeal of Arab leaders but because they feared acts of violence by right-wing Israeli terrorists or were forced from their homes by the Israeli army. Palestinian refugees and their families now number more than 3 million, and many live in horrifying conditions in refugee camps under Israeli military rule.
Despite its oral promises at Oslo to end its occupation of the Palestinian territories by 1998, Israel actually increased the number of West Bank settlers from about 120,000 in 1993 to 200,000 by the time Prime Minister Ehud Barak met with Yasir Arafat at Camp David. And although the Israeli and US media bought the myth that what was offered to Palestinians there was "the best they could ever expect," and that their rejection of the offer was proof that they wanted nothing less than the full destruction of Israel, the facts show quite a different story. Not only did Barak offer Arafat less than had been promised in 1993 but he refused to provide anything in the way of reparations or compensation for the refugees. Instead, he insisted that Arafat sign a statement saying that the terms being offered by Barak would end all claims by the Palestinian people against Israel and would represent a resolution of all outstanding issues. No Palestinian leader could have signed that agreement and abandoned the needs of those refugees.
Though it is popularly thought that negotiations broke off there, they continued at Taba until Ariel Sharon's election ended the process, which, according to then-Justice Minister Yossi Beilin, was very close to arriving at a full agreement between the two peoples. Sharon did not want that agreement because he has always opposed any deal that would involve abandoning the West Bank settlements, which he had helped expand in the 1980s--precisely to insure that Israel would never give up the occupied territories. Using the excuse of responding to acts of terror by some Palestinians, Sharon recently set out to destroy the institutions of Palestinian society and has done so with murderous brutality, with little regard for human rights and with great harm to many civilians.
No wonder, then, that social-justice-oriented Jews are upset by Israeli policies. They see that the policies are leading to a frightening upsurge in anti-Semitism. And far from providing security for Israel, they are creating new generations of terrorists and convincing the world that Israel has lost its moral compass.
Still, many Jews and non-Jews have been intimidated by the intense campaign being waged by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and by other Jewish organizations. These groups label those critical of Israel "self-hating" if they are Jewish or anti-Semitic if they are not and mobilize large amounts of money to defeat candidates deemed insufficiently pro-Israel. Ethically sensitive non-Jews are vulnerable to the manipulation of guilt about the long and bloody history of anti-Semitism in Christian Europe and Islamic north Africa, plus the US refusal of entry to Jews seeking asylum from the Nazis in the 1940s. There is ample reason for the non-Jewish world to atone for its past oppression of Jews. But non-Jews are doing no favors to the Jewish people when by their silence they help the most destructive elements of the Jewish world pursue immoral policies that almost certainly will generate more hatred of Jews.
It is time for the United States to sponsor a multinational force to physically separate and protect Israel and Palestine from each other, and then to convene an international conference to impose a final settlement. This would include an end to the occupation, evacuation of the settlements, reparations for Palestinian refugees (and also for Jews who fled Arab lands), recognition of Israel by surrounding Arab states and cessation of all acts of terror and violence. Imposing that kind of a settlement, by force if necessary, would provide real security to both sides and open up psychic space for the healing that must happen. What is called for is a new spirit of generosity, open-heartedness, repentance and reconciliation between two peoples who share equally the blame for the current mess and who both have legitimate grievances that must now be left behind for the sake of lasting peace....
This is a goal of thousands of American Jews and our non-Jewish allies who have recently formed the Tikkun Community, a progressive, pro-Israel alternative to AIPAC. Israel/Palestine peace is not only a Jewish issue; our non-Jewish allies will be essential to our campaign to educate the media, opinion shapers and elected officials. The nonviolent civil disobedience sponsored by the Tikkun Community at the State Department in April, at which Cornel West and I were arrested, is only one part of a campaign that will include lobbying, teach-ins, fasting, sending volunteers to be part of an international presence on the West Bank, collecting funds to rebuild Palestinian cities (and Israeli sites destroyed by Palestinian terror attacks) and demands on Jewish and Arab institutions to adopt a path of nonviolence. We are also creating a national student conference in October. Many students face an impossible choice between pro-Israel groups that support Sharon's current policies in lockstep or pro-Palestinian groups that claim the Palestinians are facing Nazi-like genocide at the hands of the Jewish people (an exaggeration that allows right-wing Jews to yell "anti-Semitism" because there is no attempt to systematically murder Palestinians, thereby letting Israel off the hook).
Our goal, both on campuses and in the larger society, is to forge a middle path of "tough love" for Israel--recognizing that the best way to protect Israel and the Jewish people is to use the power of the international community to impose a settlement and end the occupation. That's the path for true self-affirming Jews and non-Jews who care enough about their Jewish brothers and sisters to get involved.
One year after the story broke that a Navy SEAL team under his command was involved in an atrocity during the Vietnam War, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey stood before a packed hall in lower Manhattan as the keynote speaker at a three-day conference on human rights. The conference--"International Justice, War Crimes & Terrorism: the U.S. Record"--took place at New School University, where Kerrey is president, and grew out of Kerrey's own suggestion that his experience in Vietnam be turned into an "educational moment." On hand were an array of prominent writers (David Rieff, Samantha Power), advocates (Aryeh Neier, president of the Open Society Institute), public officials (former UN ambassador Richard Holbrooke) and judges (Richard Goldstone, former chief prosecutor at the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda).
But while the conference featured lively panel discussions on important subjects like prosecuting war crimes and responding to terrorism, Kerrey was noticeably cagey when it came to discussing how his own experience might shed light on America's culpability for human rights violations in Vietnam. "When I said I hoped to turn my revelations last spring into an educational moment," he announced, "I did not intend to meekly submit to cross-examinations or self-indulgent one-sided criticism of US foreign policy during the war in Vietnam."
Fair enough, but that is hardly what has happened in the year since Gregory Vistica's excellent article on the incident involving Kerrey's Navy SEAL unit appeared in The New York Times Magazine. Vistica presented two conflicting versions of the incident in question. According to Kerrey and five other platoon members, a group of Vietnamese civilians was inadvertently killed following an exchange of fire in the village of Thanh Phong, where US commandos were searching for a representative of the National Liberation Front. According to the more damning account of former Navy Seal Gerhard Klann, however--a version corroborated by several Vietnamese survivors--roughly a dozen women and children were lined up and executed at close range that night. Five more civilians were killed at knife-point before the team had reached the village.
When the story first appeared, the charges were deemed serious enough that Human Rights Watch called on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for an "urgent, thorough and independent inquiry" of the case. "For the US to ignore allegations of grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions as have been made in this case would seriously undermine efforts around the world to enforce these essential standards," the organization stated.
Twelve months later, all talk of investigating the Kerrey incident has evaporated. Kerrey, meanwhile, has continued to preside over the New School, a university with a proud progressive history that has found itself enmeshed in moral and political controversy. Dismayed that Kerrey never told school officials about the operation until the story made international headlines, the Graduate Faculty Student Union called for him to step down. But the Board of Trustees stuck by him, and the faculty wavered, issuing a statement that Kerrey's public acknowledgment should serve as an occasion for the United States "to consider its own record in Vietnam against the standards it imposes elsewhere."
At least some faculty members are now regretting that decision, for the controversy about Kerrey's past has been compounded by growing rancor over his vision of the New School's future. In March, Kenneth Prewitt, the popular dean of the school's vaunted Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science, resigned after concluding that "the emphasis was on revenue flows rather than building academic excellence." At a public forum in March, Prewitt revealed that at one point a provost suggested awarding cash bonuses to deans who increased the number of tuition-paying students in their divisions, a notion Kerrey admitted was his own "bad idea." Other faculty members believe Kerrey has not been straightforward about the future of the university's core division, the Graduate Faculty. In March the GF was informed it would have to cut its budget by $5 million to become self-sustaining (virtually all doctoral programs rely on subsidies from other divisions to stay afloat). When Kerrey was questioned about his plans in the Times, he reversed course, indicating that the subsidy might actually increase. At a faculty dinner two nights later, an associate dean who asked whether this was true was reportedly told by Kerrey not to believe everything he read in the papers.
Such lack of forthrightness is reminiscent of Kerrey's handling of the Vietnam story. When Klann's account first appeared, after all, Kerrey did not flat-out deny it ("I'm not going to make this worse by questioning somebody else's memory"), but he accused the media of "collaborating" with those who want to believe the worst about America. He expressed anguish and regret ("If I'd have lost both arms and both legs and my sight and my hearing, it wouldn't have been as much as I lost that night"). But he hired public relations adviser John Scanlon--who orchestrated the campaign against tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (and has since died)--to spin the story. In his keynote address, Kerrey did advocate more thorough training of US troops in the laws of war, but he also complained that critics who harp on Vietnam have made America excessively cautious about using force abroad.
Perhaps we should expect nothing different from a public figure whose reputation is his livelihood. But many people do expect more from the New School. "I really question the wisdom of the university leaders here," said John Kim, an army veteran who attended the conference and heads the New York chapter of Veterans for Peace. "If he had come out openly and admitted his wrongdoing and apologized to the victims, I would support him. But I think the trustees and students and faculty should demand his resignation until there is an independent investigation or he comes forward with a full admission of his role."
Howard Gardner, the noted education/cognition specialist, recently undertook, with two colleagues, an in-depth study of the work-related happiness of two groups of people, geneticists and journalists, for a book called Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic). The lucky geneticists, passionate about and excited by their jobs, couldn't wait to get out of bed in the morning to get to work. The journalists, by contrast, were near despondency. They had entered the profession "armed with ideals: covering important stories, doing so in an exhaustive and fair way, relying on their own judgment about the significance of stories and the manner in which they should be presented." Instead, the authors note, they find themselves in a profession where "much of the control in journalism has passed from professionals to corporate executives and stockholders, with most of the professional decisions made less on the basis of ideals than on profits" focusing on "material that is simple and sensational, if not of prurient interest." Journalism, they write, has become a "poorly aligned" profession where "good work" is harder and harder to be found.
Needless to say, the authors undertook their research before ABC offered Nightline's spot to David Letterman without telling Ted Koppel, or anyone else in the news division. The deans of the nation's top nine journalism schools took the Nightline episode as a clarion call to meet in crisis mode recently in Northern California, in hopes of figuring out what might be done to stem the tide of willful destruction of what remains of this country's commercial news infrastructure by its corporate ownership. Based on my conversations with a bunch of them, they're not really sure. I was attending a three-day gathering at the UC journalism school at Berkeley, sponsored by the Western Knight Center, addressing a similar set of issues. Why train students for a profession that wants nothing more than to turn them into poorly paid actors playing journalists on TV?
As much as the media like to report on themselves--I'd use the obligatory metaphor, but I think it insulting to masturbation--few observers understand just how profoundly the media landscape has been transformed of late. We're down to just six media conglomerates, with more "consolidation" on the way. (Radio is down to a horrible two.) Newspaper readership blipped upward after September 11, but publishers have made no inroads whatever toward convincing young people to acquire the daily habit. Kathleen Hall Jamieson of the Annenberg Center at the University of Pennsylvania is working on a project designed to use the Net to try to interest students in taking a look at broadcast news; swaying them in the direction of a daily paper is considered a hopeless task. Perhaps I'm a pessimist, but how can an industry expect to survive the ultimate death of virtually its entire market? As Michael Wolff wrote recently, "If you own a newspaper, you can foresee its almost-certain end."
Magazine editors came to the Berkeley conference to bemoan the virtual end of the kind of long-form literary journalism that brought so many people into the business, hoping to combine literary aspirations with exciting, change-the-world kinds of lives. The New Yorker, under David Remnick, in many ways has never been better than it is right now. But its articles, with a few significant exceptions, have never been shorter. That's perhaps a necessary concession to people's much busier lives and may in some cases reflect the imposition of some badly needed discipline. But it comes at the cost of the kind of luxurious journalism that once gave us the ground-breaking work of Lillian Ross, Rachel Carson, Michael J. Arlen, John McPhee and Janet Malcolm. The jewel in Si Newhouse's crown bears roughly the same relationship to literary journalism that the New York Times bears to newspapers and that CBS, under Larry Tisch, abdicated to television news: It's the gold standard. If The New Yorker has given up on such lofty aspirations, everybody else can fairly ask, What can you possibly expect from us?
With broadcast television, the relevant journalistic question is one of survival. Despite Ted Koppel's $8 million or so a year, Nightline was a significant profit center for ABC when its executives stabbed its news division in the back by trying to cut a secret deal with Letterman, which would almost certainly have lost the network millions. What could they have been thinking? Perhaps it was a whiff of grapeshot to the division, just as Peter Jennings's rumored $11.5 million a year is coming up again. Perhaps the suits needed to send a message to their corporate body and to Wall Street that they're serious about improving Disney's horrific stock performance. If that required the public humiliation of the most admired voice in commercial news, along with the entire news division, well, this is one mean Mouse. Get used to it.
Nightline's near-death experience may ultimately signal the death of serious news reporting anywhere on network television, leaving us with only the tabloid swamp of cable. The news departments produce morning and magazine shows that contain virtually no traditional news. The evening news broadcasts are increasingly given over to tabloid fluff as well, even post-September 11. When the current generation of anchors goes, the 6:30 time slot will likely be given back to the local affiliates with their 40 to 60 percent profit margins for "If It Bleeds, It Leads" local news broadcasts. Meanwhile, the nation's alleged public watchdog, the FCC, is headed by giddy cheerleader Michael Powell, who has yet to meet a media merger he didn't like or a public-service regulation he didn't loathe. (Alex Jones, head of Harvard's Shorenstein Center, rather optimistically proposes an Economist-like rescue operation of serious news by the BBC, having apparently given up on US corporations.)
Where will it all end knows God! But must our billion-dollar babies really go this gently into their good night? Dan, Peter, Tom, Walter, Ted, the calling that made you rich and famous beyond any young man's dreams is headed for the network chopping block. How about a little noise, boys, on the way to the gallows?
The old movies used to feature a priest walking alongside the condemned man toward the scaffold, offering last seconds of comfort, plea-bargaining strategies with St. Peter, a bolstering hand under the elbow. Sometime in the next decade the tableau may be reversed, with a lay counselor assisting the condemned priest as he totters toward that final rendezvous with the executioner.
The death penalty is being vigorously touted as the best way to deal with child molesters. And as the world knows, the Roman Catholic Church has sheltered many a child molester. On the cutting edge here are three states noted for the moral refinement of their legislators: to wit, Montana, Louisiana and Alabama. The first two states have already put Death for Molesters into their statute books, and when Alabama lawmakers convene again next year they will press forward into legislation, after an overwhelming vote from the state's House of Representatives last year in favor of molester executions.
The Montana law allows a person previously convicted of "sexual intercourse without consent" with someone under 16 in any state to be sentenced to death if convicted of the crime in Montana. The law was passed in 1997, but no one has yet been charged under that provision. Since 1995 Louisiana has had a law allowing the death penalty for people convicted of raping a child under 12. Thus far, a few charges, no convictions.
Alabama's bill would authorize the death penalty for people convicted a second time of having sex with someone under 12. No other states allow capital punishment for a sex crime. ABC News quoted Marcel Black, chairman of the Alabama House Judiciary Committee, as saying, "The very serious meaning of this is to send a message to child molesters that it is a bad thing to do."
Molesters can take comfort in the fact that these laws will probably not survive challenges from higher courts. The US Supreme Court ruled in 1977 that the death penalty is excessive punishment for rape. But who knows, in the current atmosphere anything is possible. Maybe that's why Pope John Paul II, a far-seeing man, shifted the Church toward opposition to the death penalty.
Two years ago fewer than 8 percent of those who took part in a Gallup poll among Jewish Israelis said they were in favor of what is politely called "transfer"--that is, the expulsion of perhaps 2 million Palestinians across the Jordan River. This month that figure reached 44 percent.
Professor Martin van Creveld is one of Israel's best-known military historians. On April 28 Britain's conservative newspaper the Telegraph published an article outlining what van Creveld believes is Sharon's near-term goal--expulsion.
According to van Creveld, Sharon's plan is to drive 2 million Palestinians across the Jordan using the pretext of a US attack on Iraq or a terrorist strike in Israel. This could trigger a vast mobilization to clear the occupied territories of Arabs. Van Creveld notes that in the 1970 showdown between Jordan's King Hussein and the PLO, Sharon, serving as commanding officer of Israel's southern front, argued that Israel's assistance to the King was a mistake; instead it should have tried to topple the Hashemite regime. Sharon has often said since that Jordan, which has a Palestinian majority even now, is the Palestinian state, and thus a suitable destination for Palestinians to be kicked out of his Greater Israel.
A US attack on Iraq would offer appropriate cover. Sharon himself told Secretary of State Colin Powell that nothing happening in Israel should delay a US attack. Other pretexts could include an uprising in Jordan, followed by the collapse of King Abdullah's regime.
Should such circumstances arise, according to van Creveld, Israel would mobilize within hours. "First, the country's three ultra-modern submarines would take up firing positions out at sea. Borders would be closed, a news blackout imposed, and all foreign journalists rounded up and confined to a hotel as guests of the Government. A force of 12 divisions, 11 of them armoured, plus various territorial units suitable for occupation duties, would be deployed: five against Egypt, three against Syria, and one opposite Lebanon. This would leave three to face east as well as enough forces to put a tank inside every Arab-Israeli village just in case their populations get any funny ideas."
In van Creveld's view (he does say that he is utterly opposed to any form of "transfer"), "the expulsion of the Palestinians would require only a few brigades. They would not drag people out of their houses but use heavy artillery to drive them out; the damage caused to Jenin would look like a pinprick in comparison." He discounts any effective response from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon or Iraq.
But what about international reaction? Van Creveld thinks it would not be an effective deterrent. "If Mr Sharon decides to go ahead, the only country that can stop him is the United States. The US, however, regards itself as being at war with parts of the Muslim world that have supported Osama bin Laden. America will not necessarily object to that world being taught a lesson--particularly if it could be as swift and brutal as the 1967 campaign; and also particularly if it does not disrupt the flow of oil for too long.
"Israeli military experts estimate that such a war could be over in just eight days," van Creveld writes. "If the Arab states do not intervene, it will end with the Palestinians expelled and Jordan in ruins. If they do intervene, the result will be the same, with the main Arab armies destroyed. Israel would, of course, take some casualties, especially in the north, where its population would come under fire from Hizbollah. However, their number would be limited and Israel would stand triumphant, as it did in 1948, 1956, 1967 and 1973."
We've been warned.
(Sung to the tune of "The Farmer and the Cowman" from Oklahoma!)
The Saudis and their oil rigs are our friends.
Oh, the Saudis and their oil rigs are our friends.
They can bomb us when they please, we need gas for SUVs.
We're infidels, but we can make amends.
Petrobusiness pals must stick together.
All the guzzlers' gas tanks must be filled.
We'll protect the Saudis' border
While they preach we should be killed.
They teach their kids the Protocols of Zion.
It's jail for women if their hair is showing.
They say that we're corrupt and that we're wicked.
We say, "Whatever. Keep that petrol flowing."
Petrobusiness pals must stick together.
All the guzzlers' gas tanks must be filled.
We'll protect the Saudis' border
While they preach we should be killed.
I have been on something of a Shakespeare comedy jag over the past months; I laughed all the way from Columbus, Ohio, to New York a few weeks ago, reading Love's Labor's Lost. I had read As You Like It just before 9/11, and had a dream one night after that day that I was in the Forest of Arden with its population of clowns and witty young women picking cowslips. I felt entirely exalted until I woke up with the memory of the smoke and horror of the terrorist attack, and the sense that the comedy somehow distilled the world we had lost. So I read it again to keep the joy of the dream alive. And since then I have been going through the comedies whenever I need a happiness fix. I would love to have been part of the audience Shakespeare had in mind when he wrote Love's Labor's Lost. There are, in effect, two teams of extravagant talkers--the King of Navarre and his courtiers on one side, the Princess of France with her ladies on the other. The King and his followers have just taken an oath to forswear contact with women for three years when the Princess comes on some diplomatic mission; the four males fall immediately in love with the four females, for whom they are no match in the game of zinging witticisms past one another's ears.
Shakespeare's audience had to be able to disentangle quadruple puns as the lines flew back and forth. It is a comedy in which, as one of the male characters remarks, "Jack does not get his Jill." Everyone has to take a respite of a year and a day before they will be ready to face one another again.
I met a real life Jill not long ago--Jill Davis--who has just published a comic novel called Girl's Poker Night. Her book too has a team of daunting women, pessimistically looking for love. Her heroine, Ruby Capote, might well have made good material for the Princess of France's team of ladies who use language as a blood sport, though mostly she talks to the reader, since the males are more or less hopeless. In the end she opts for happiness with a man who is far from good enough for her. But--as she observes--"Happy endings are not for cowards."
Here, for those who frown on such light reading for these heavy times, is a word from Hegel:
"The modern world has developed a type of comedy which is truly comical and truly poetic. The keynote is good humor, assured and careless gaiety, despite all failure and misfortune, exuberance and the audacity of a fundamentally happy craziness, folly, and idiosyncrasy in general."
Nearly fifty years ago, in Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse suggested that homosexuals (then the current term) might someday--because of their "rebellion against the subjugation of sexuality under the order of procreation"--provide a cutting-edge social critique of vast importance. Marcuse's prophecy may have come to pass. Or so some are claiming.
There is mounting evidence that a distinctive set of values has emerged among gay people (despite enormous variations in their lifestyles) in regard to how they view gender, sexuality, primary relationships, friendships and family. One even increasingly hears the claim that gay "differentness" isn't just a defensible variation but a decided advance over mainstream norms, that gay subcultural perspectives could richly inform conventional life, could open up an unexplored range of human possibilities for everyone. That is, if the mainstream were listening, which it isn't.
The mainstream's antenna remains tuned to a limited number of frequencies: that heterosexuality is the Natural Way; that (as we move right of center) lifetime monogamous pair-bonding is the likeliest guarantee of human happiness; that the gender binary (everyone is either male or female and each gender has distinctive characteristics) is rooted in biology. Those queers who look and sound like "normal" people (or are at least able to fake it in public)--meaning, mostly, well-mannered, clean-cut white men and lipstick lesbians--are being welcomed into the mainstream in mounting numbers.
But the armed guards at the gates continue to bar admission to (as they might put it) overweight butch dykes, foul-mouthed black queers or dickless "men" and surgically created "women" delusionally convinced that they're part of some nonexistent group called the "transgendered." The mainstream somehow senses that the more different the outsider, the greater the threat posed to its own lofty sense of blue-ribbon superiority. Fraternizing with true exotics can prove dangerously seductive, opening up Normal People to possibilities within themselves that they prefer to keep under lock and key.
But what happens when "normal-looking" queers start asserting how different from you they actually are--and start lecturing you about how abnormal your own proclaimed normalcy is? Take, for example, the arguments that David Nimmons puts forth in his new book, The Soul Beneath the Skin. His focus is on precisely those privileged urban gay white men who, judged by outward demeanor, closely resemble stereotypical heterosexual males; they don't look or act at all like those phantasmagoric renegades, the transgendered. Yet according to Nimmons, standard-issue gay males have birthed a strikingly different (and, he claims, superior) set of personal ethics and community institutions. These are guys, for God's sake, who hang out in gyms and look like football players! Yet far from being your average macho Joes, their subculture is, Nimmons claims, marked by "a striking range of cultural innovations."
What are its chief identifying features? In the past, the question has typically been answered by referencing a set of negative stereotypes that emphasize an obsession with buffed bodies, drug-driven dancing marathons, "circuit" parties of profligate sexual excess, a devotion to consumerism that excludes politics and the life of the mind, and a ruthless narcissism that denies entry to its playgrounds to all but stunning young white male bodies reeking of Ecstasy and attitude.
In The Soul Beneath the Skin, Nimmons builds a strong countercase, favorably contrasting gay male values with those associated with heterosexual men. Urban gay life, for instance, is notable for the absence of community violence. The gay male bar scene rarely spawns shouting matches, brawls or an exchange of blows. Our dances, parades, political rallies and marches are suffused with drama but nearly devoid of ferocity.
We also have a high rate of volunteerism. According to one large-scale study, the gay cohort volunteered 61 percent more time to nonprofit organizations than did the heterosexual one--and divided its charitable contributions nearly equally between gay and nongay causes. Gay men, moreover, consistently score higher than straight men on studies that attempt to measure empathy and altruism. We perceive discrimination against others more readily than other men do, and we're more likely to have friends across lines of color, gender, religion and politics. It's telling that during the trial of Matthew Shepard's murderers, nearly every leading national gay and lesbian organization publicly opposed the death penalty. Cruelly treated for generations, we practice tenderness and tolerance more than other oppressed minority groups--who tend to treat us with contempt and disdain.
Nimmons also applauds the premium that many (though certainly not all) gay men put on being emotionally expressive and sexually innovative--for the compelling way we've reworked the rules governing erotic exploration, friendship and coupledom. In regard to couples, he argues that the community ideal (even if only approximated in practice) is one of mutuality and egalitarianism--which again sets us apart from stereotypical straight men, some of whom spout egalitarian rhetoric but few of whom carry their fair share of domestic responsibilities.
I find much of what Nimmons has to say persuasive--indeed, a recent British study, Same Sex Intimacies, by Jeffrey Weeks, Brian Heaphy and Catherine Donovan, confirms gay male distinctiveness beyond the borders of the United States. Still, I do have problems with some aspects of Nimmons's argument. The most serious derive from his lack of clarity about whether he's primarily defending the limited number of urban, privileged, mostly white men who make up the gym/circuit/Fire Island Pines crowd, or whether he's mounting a broader defense of gay male culture as a whole.
He wobbles back and forth, though he finally does seem more interested in sticking up for the small circuit set than in burnishing the image of the general gay male community. In my view, though, the distinctive set of values that he catalogues more justly apply to the latter than the former. I've made dozens of trips over several decades to the Pines, for example, and can say only that Nimmons's description of it as "a form of queer kibbutz" where "an easy male affection suffuses the air" is wildly at odds with my experience of it as a smug, fatuously snotty watering hole for the very rich or very beautiful.
I also think that Nimmons overdraws the contrasts between gay and straight men and overcredits our "stunning cultural accomplishment[s]." After all, Hugh Hefner made some contribution to the "erotic innovations" that so enthrall Nimmons. And experimental patterns in sexuality and relating date back at least to the countercultural 1960s (not to mention the nineteenth-century Oneida community, the Bloomsbury crowd or the bohemian Greenwich Village of the 1920s). Nimmons also minimizes the notable shifts in attitude that characterize today's younger generation of heterosexuals. In simplistically insisting that "the icy winds of sexual repression...have swept across the [heterosexual] American landscape," Nimmons fails to understand how broadly attitudes about sex and gender have shifted, especially in urban areas, as traditional notions of what constitutes a "family" or a "viable" relationship come under increasing scrutiny.
Nimmons is better at delineating gay male distinctiveness than accounting for it. He establishes the fact of gay male peaceableness, for example--and does so with style and verve--but he's of little help in explaining it, other than to remark in passing that "gay men might be biologically a gentler species of male." But it seems to me far more likely that our nonviolent behavior originates in our historical experience. Having been subjected for generations to gay-bashing and police brutality, we've learned, out of prudence and fear, not to let our anger show in public. Tellingly, it does show in private: The rate of domestic violence among both gay men and lesbians ranks right up there with heterosexual violence. (The latest of many studies to confirm that is No More Secrets, by Janice Ristock.) We're not devoid of rage; we're unwittingly passive-aggressive, taking out the aggressive side in the comparative safety of our homes--or on ourselves, through the abuse of alcohol and drugs.
But Nimmons, prone to inspirational excess (as when he writes about "the centrality of bliss and play in our lives"--sure, try telling that to the legions of poor gay people), is impatient with introspection. He sneeringly refers, at one point, to "the reigning queer academic chatter--uh, sorry, discourse," showing no awareness of how much queer (and feminist) theory has contributed to the "new culture" whose virtues he trumpets.
Besides, he has ideological allegiances of his own, though he reveals them off-handedly. Phrases like "hard-wired," "essential components" and "innate tendency" are sprinkled throughout Soul, tipping Nimmons's deterministic hand. They're sprinkled, not boldly embraced, and Nimmons frequently inserts a tepid disclaimer to protect his flank: "There is much to argue with in any strict sociobiological view," he says at one point, but never tells us how much. He even drops in a little spiritualist fairy dust now and then, as when suggesting that those involved in the party circuit are, in their pursuit of "rapture" and "bliss," direct descendants of "ancient shamans."
No, we have to look elsewhere for deeper insight into the origins and significance of the gay male version of masculinity. I have two offbeat candidates in mind: Talmudic studies and relational psychoanalysis. The towering figure in Talmudic studies these days is Daniel Boyarin of the University of California, Berkeley. His 1997 book Unheroic Conduct is a work of immense importance, all at once astonishingly erudite, witty, playful and boldly speculative. As its reputation spreads, it's beginning to roil the waters far beyond Talmudic studies.
Boyarin's basic thesis--though this summary won't do justice to its supple byways--is that traditional Ashkenazic Jewish culture produced, in opposition to the Roman model of the powerful, aggressive, violent warrior, a cultural ideal of masculinity that valorized gentleness, nurturance, emotional warmth, nonviolence, inwardness and studiousness. These characteristics were associated with sexual desirability, not sexlessness--in contrast to the somewhat comparably pacific early Christian model of maleness associated with the desexualized St. Francis. This doesn't mean, Boyarin emphasizes, that orthodox Ashkenazic culture was sympathetic to women (who were excluded from power) or to homoeroticism (though male sexual attraction to other males does not seem to have been considered abnormal).
By the nineteenth century, the now stereotypical figure of the "feminized" Jewish man had become, in the minds of many Jews, a roadblock to assimilation; a successful effort (joined by Freud and Theodor Herzl, among others) was made to discredit the once-privileged model of a gentler, more nurturant masculinity as either the pathological product of the Diaspora or a figment of the anti-Semitic imagination.
Boyarin wants to reclaim the earlier tradition. He believes, and I'd agree, that restoring the once-revered model would greatly help to destabilize binary notions of gender, would emancipate men and women from roles that currently constrict their human possibilities. The critical recovery of the past would, in Boyarin's words, make for the redemption of the future. The implications of Boyarin's work are breathtaking. By reclaiming a radically different--and socially constructed--model of masculinity, he wreaks havoc with simplistic biological determinism and offers us a previously unsighted path toward social change.
As a champion of the gentle, inward male, Boyarin has to confront the macho muscularity of the circuit culture, and he does so in a typically nuanced way. Himself an openly gay man, Boyarin has no trouble appreciating, on one level, the beauty of the gym-built gay male body. But unlike Nimmons, who uncomplicatedly exalts it, Boyarin warns that the emphasis on powerful muscularity reinforces "the dimorphism of the gendered body and thus participates... in the general cultural standard of masculinity rather than resisting it." In contributing to the notion that only one kind of male body is desirable, the gym stud-bunny is helping to reinforce the valorization of "topness" over receptivity that already dominates our culture, sexual and otherwise.
The macho-looking gay male is also serving another negative function. The gym-built body, imitative of stereotypical maleness, all but announces that "No Sissy Lives Here," thereby encouraging gay men (including the stud-bunnies themselves) to bury and deny the gender-discordant traits that made so many of us feel painfully different in childhood--to repudiate, in other words, "woman-identified" aspects of the self. ("Gender-discordant" is a necessary but troublesome term, implying as it does that we know what a gender-concordant model looks like and that it exists cross-culturally and is superior. The fine essays in Matthew Rottnek's Sissies and Tomboys further explore these issues.)
I suspect that if we really do care about breaking down the gender binary, the place to look for inspiration is not Gold's Gym but the increasingly visible transgender movement, offering as it does a radical remodeling of traditional "masculinity" and "femininity." Transgendered people and gender-discordant gay men are notably absent from Nimmons's book. So, too, is any discussion of lesbian culture ("Lesbians and gay men inhabit radically different worlds," is Nimmons's weak justification). Not accidentally, those who are transgendered, gender-discordant or lesbian are also rarely seen, if not actually barred from, the circuit party network. Yet all three belong at the heart of any comprehensive discussion of a "new" gay culture.
The extent of gender discordance among gay men hasn't been a front-burner topic since the early 1970s, when radical gay liberationists championed an androgynous ideal. It's time to stop avoiding the topic. Boyarin has provided us with a historical context for dealing with it, and the psychiatrist Richard Isay (among others) has offered us some provocative contemporary data.
In a 1999 paper in the journal Psychiatry, Isay insists that all of the several hundred gay men he's treated over the past thirty years exhibited gender-discordant traits in childhood. (Such traits, it should be pointed out, are not confined to children who later develop a same-gender erotic preference: Some fifteen years ago, Richard Green, in his much-contested book The "Sissy Boy Syndrome" and the Development of Homosexuality, found that roughly a third of the gender-discordant male children he studied became, as adults, heterosexual in orientation.)
If one accepts--as I do, but Isay does not--the queer theory argument that "male" and "female" gender roles are not to any significant degree intrinsic--that is, biologically determined--but are primarily, and perhaps even exclusively, the products of learning and repetitive performance, then "gender discordance" becomes something of a non sequitur: Where all boys are capable of (perhaps even, in the earliest years, inclined toward) a female-identified--which may be the same as saying transgendered--self-image and presentation, then no particular gender configuration can legitimately be seen as "deviant." Boyarin's Ashkenazic Jews--men whose avoidance of what we call "rough and tumble" play would, by contemporary standards, be branded as "sissy"--were in their own culture esteemed as ideal representatives of maleness.
That model of manliness has nothing in common with the currently fashionable incantation--itself harking back to Jungian twaddle about "anima" and "animus"--that men "need to get in touch with their feminine side." No, it's about the need to reinvent for everyone, male and female, more fluid, expansive self-definitions; it's about moving beyond gender conformity, beyond gender itself, to molding individually satisfying selfhoods.
Isay's concern is with current suffering, not with a futuristic path that might circumvent it. "Gender-discordant" boys, taunted at school and berated at home (especially by their fathers), internalize the view that something is "wrong with them," that they're "not OK." And most of them, from an early age, struggle to divest themselves of the disapproved behavior--of all traces of effeminacy. The psychic cost, as Isay points out, is high. In repudiating aspects of the self that could be read as feminine, the male (straight or gay) does deep injury to his affective life, including the loss of emotional expressiveness and resilience, possible separation trauma from the forcibly disavowed yet still adored mother, and the need to avoid relationships that might evoke any resurgence of "feminine" traits.
Such speculations should, at a minimum, make us ponder precisely what is "transformative" (as Nimmons and others claim) about the gym/circuit culture. Is it expanding our range of expressive options--or narrowing them? I think we should be wary, too, of the paeans to "erotic adventuring" that fill The Soul Beneath the Skin (and much of gay male discourse). I used to write such paeans myself, so feel free to chalk up my current uncertainty to the onset of old age and the loss of vital fluids.
We need to keep in mind that there's enormous variation in how gay men conduct their sexual lives. Even before AIDS, only about 20 percent of the gay male population pursued erotic exploration in any sustained way--about the same percentage as those who chose celibacy. Still, even among long-term gay male couples, roughly three-quarters of them define "fidelity" in terms of emotional commitment rather than sexual faithfulness--a much higher percentage than is found among either lesbian or heterosexual couples.
Nimmons considers this rescripting of monogamy in primary relationships a "creative" phenomenon. Certainly there's plenty of evidence to support the view that monogamy is comparatively rare among animal species. In their recent book The Myth of Monogamy, the husband and wife team of David Barash and Judith Eve Lipton offer a barrage of information to the effect that monogamy is "not natural" and certainly "not easy." But Barash and Lipton also argue that there is no better alternative, "that open, unstructured, and nonrestrictive sexual relationships" do not make people happier.
Nimmons is certain they do, and it's a view widely shared among his crowd of urban gay men. They could be right, but the argument needs to be mounted, not merely affirmed. When Nimmons claims that gay men have built "the most complex, flourishing, nuanced sexual culture the planet has known," it can only mean he's never heard of the Kama Sutra.
And although it may be true that gay people talk "a whole lot dirtier with spouses and lovers" than straight people do, I wouldn't be too quick to equate that with either "a stunning cultural accomplishment" or a revolution--no, not even if we include such additional innovations as "fuck buddies," "orgy rooms," "glory holes" and "lube guns." Personally, I'd rather reserve the word "revolution" for that halcyon day when we manage to eradicate racism, poverty and the subjugation of women.
To be sure, the pursuit of bodily pleasure is, given our puritanical traditions, decidedly a force for good. But too self-congratulatory a focus on glutes and orgasms often seems yoked to an undernourished political sense that comes across, ultimately, as a form of provincialism light-years removed from any concern with the survival issues that dominate and defeat most of the planet's inhabitants--including most of its gay people.
Celebrating what is special and innovative in urban gay male life is a needed antidote to generations of negative stereotyping. But simply affirming our cultural achievements won't cut it. We need to weigh them against theories and evidence that don't simply reflect our community's self-referential values. A concrete example of what I have in mind would be to incorporate into our debates about, say, primary relationships the writings of Stephen Mitchell, one of the founders of relational psychoanalysis and among the very first to challenge the once-standard view of homosexuality as pathology. Mitchell's new, posthumously published book, Can Love Last? The Fate of Romance Over Time, is not aimed at a gay audience, but the questions it raises assuredly apply.
The book throws unsettling light on the dynamics of longstanding relationships, unsettling because Mitchell turns some cherished formulas on their heads--like the view, shared by many gays and straights alike, that erotic excitement and domesticity cannot coexist for long. The usual explanation for their incompatibility is some version of "familiarity breeds boredom." But in Mitchell's view, turning off to our primary partner is essentially a function of risk management. We separate sex and love because otherwise the stakes would be too high--too likely to heighten dependency and vulnerability, too threatening to our (illusory) sense of being in control of our lives.
And, Mitchell points out, this is more true for men than women. The macho masculinity we privilege in our culture, Mitchell argues, is "easily destabilized by dependency longings." Most men cannot risk monogamy. And we give them an easy way out: Our cultural script tells men that for them (unlike women), sexuality is rapacious and indiscriminate; that the male libido demands adventure.
Mitchell reports that when his patients "complain of dead and lifeless marriages, it is often possible to show them how precious the deadness is to them, how carefully maintained and insisted upon." Long-term partners "collapse their expectations of each other," he writes, "in collusively arranged, choreographed routine."
We then relocate our sexual desire away from our primary partner, telling ourselves that he or she has become too familiar to ignite desire--whereas in fact we're fleeing the threat of deeper knowledge of the other and deeper exposure of ourselves. We refuse to acknowledge that our partner, far from having become wholly known or from being securely centered, is a mysterious multiplicity of selves. But armed with our denial of the other's (and our own) potential, we rush off to our one-night stands, threesomes and orgies. Nimmons relabels erotic adventuring "diffuse intimacy" (the "diffuse" part, anyway, is unassailable), and urges us to applaud it. Yet in light of Mitchell's sensitive distinctions, the applause seems too sweeping, too psychologically naïve.
I'm deeply committed to ending the era of gay apologetics. But we need to be on guard against the temptation to replace it with an era of extravagant self-congratulation.
Since this is going to be a story about sex and children, let's start with a bit of groping in the priests' chamber.
I must have been 12. My confederates and I, all suited out in our little Scout uniforms--demure blouse, ribbon tie, sash of merit badges across the chest, jaunty tam-o'-shanter--were mustered in the rectory of St. John Gualbert's, there to be investigated on our knowledge of and devotion to the Blessed Virgin. This was the last step toward our achieving a Catholic girl's honor called the Marian Award. I remember the word "investigated." I remember, too, sitting on the long bench, looking at the heavy draperies, the carved legs of the vast dining table, waiting my turn in the half-dark, feeling the gaze of the stripped and suffering painted Jesus behind me while, at the head of the table, our resolutely unmortified investigator began asking first one girl then another such questions as "Where do babies come from?" "What do you have between your legs?" "What do you have here?" laying hand on breast, and so on like that. Hmm, I thought, these were nothing like the sample questions in the manual I'd been reviewing for days. And what was he doing easing my friend up across his tumid belly and onto his lap? I'd never liked this priest. He was florid and coarse, with piggy eyes, a bald head and thick fingers that he'd run along the inside of the chalice after Communion, smacking his lips on the last drops of the blood of Christ. My mother didn't teach me about sex--I don't count the menstruation talk--but, without quite saying so, she taught me to regard authority figures as persons who had to earn respect. Obedience was rarely free, never blind. Time has stolen what this priest asked me, where, if anyplace, he touched me; I remember him stinking of drink is all, and myself standing schoolmarm straight and reciting, with the high-minded air I affected for such occasions, the statement I'd been preparing: "Father, I fail to see what that question has to do with the Marian Award. Girls, let's go." We escaped in a whirl of gasps and secretive giggles, rushing to telephone our Scout leader. I had no inclination to tell my mother, but most of the other girls told theirs, and soon the priest was relieved of child-related duties. We got our Marian medals without further investigation, and before too long the priest dropped dead in the street of a heart attack. Even now, as middle-aged men weep about the lifelong trauma inflicted by an uninvited cleric's hand to their childish buttocks, I consider my own too-close brush with the cloth as just another scene from Catholic school.
There were very different scenes, many more in fact, that I could just as easily conjure forward now under the heading "sex and childhood," though at the time I no more thought they had anything to do with sex than our encounter with the priest or, for that matter, my mother's subtle lessons in self-possession. They contained, rather, the bits and pieces of a sensual education that would be fit together in some recognizable pattern only later. And because, at least in my school at that time, official silence about sex meant we were also spared lectures against abortion and homosexuality, onanism and promiscuity ("Thou shalt not commit adultery"? who knew?), what was left to us was indulgence in the high-blown romance of the church: Gregorian chants and incantatory Polish litanies; the telling and retelling of the ecstasies of the saints; the intoxicating aroma of incense, of hyacinths at Easter and heaped peonies in June; the dazzling brocades of the priests' vestments and the Infant of Prague's extravagant dresses, which we girls would paw through when cleaning the church on Saturday; the stories of hellfire and martyrdom; and the dark, spare aesthetic of the nuns.
There is a parallel in my ordering of childish memories here and the public reaction to Judith Levine's Harmful to Minors. Levine spends a large portion of the book advocating for candid, comprehensive sex education in schools, something I and many of my generation never had. But the spirit that animates the book is a less programmatic, polymorphous appreciation of the sights and smells, the sounds and language and tactile delights that make a person--adult or child--feel alive in her skin. Levine's central preoccupation, running like a golden thread throughout the book, is the pursuit of happiness, the idea that kids have a right not just to safety and knowledge but to pleasure too. And "pleasure" here is more than the sweet shudder of a kiss, the happy exhaustion of climax; it is the panoply of large and small things that figure under the heading joie de vivre, including the satisfaction, quite apart from sex, of relating deeply with others in the world. "Knowledge" is more than facts and technical skill; it is the ability to understand the prompts of body and mind--to recognize "when you can't not have it," as one woman quoted by Levine replied to her daughter's "How do I know?" question--and the wherewithal to decide when it's time to get out of the rectory.
In another age and country this might be called reasonable, everyday stuff. Levine spends hardly any time talking about pedophiles, none on priests. In dissecting the various sexual panics of the past couple of decades, she marshals a catalogue of what, in the scheme of things, should be reassuring studies and statistics to show that satanic ritual abuse is a myth; child abduction, molestation and murder by strangers (as opposed to family members) is rare and not rising; pedophilia (an erotic preference of maybe 1 percent of the population) typically expresses itself in such "hands-off" forms as voyeurism and exhibitionism; child sex offenders have among the lowest rates of recidivism; child porn, whether on the Net or the streets, is almost nonexistent and then (less reassuring) its chief reproducers and distributors are cops; sexual solicitations aimed at children over the Net, while creepy, have not resulted in actual assaults; and "willing" encounters between adults and minors do not ruin minors. Although Levine has noted in interviews that, as a teenager, she had a sexual relationship with an older man, she never mentions it in the book, nor does she delve too far into this last taboo. She relegates to a footnote the fascinating, difficult story of Mary Kay Letourneau, the 35-year-old Seattle area teacher jailed for her affair with a 13-year-old student who impregnated her twice and insisted to the press, "I'm fine." Levine's most detailed discussion of age-of-consent laws involves the more easily comprehended story of a precocious 13-year-old, who also asserted her free will, and an emotionally immature 21-year-old, currently locked up for statutory rape. More than once Levine states, for anyone suspicious enough to wonder, her unswerving opposition to every form of forced, coerced or violent sex, and to sex between adults and young children. It shouldn't be necessary for her to assert that just because kids have a far greater chance of dying in a car accident than at the hands of a sex offender that doesn't mean the latter isn't a problem, but she does. Yet, for all that, her book is being blasted by the heavy guns and light artillery of the right-wing sex police as a child molester's manifesto.
One reason is timing. The priest scandal, one of those things that everyone knew but kept an unbothered or guilty silence about until the court cases and daily headlines forced a response, has raised a hysteria against which any rationality on youthful sexuality has about as much chance as that student facing the tank in Tiananmen Square. Even without that, nothing seems to make the blood boil like the suggestion that it's possible for minors to emerge unscathed or even enriched from consensual sexual relations with adults. I have had such conversations with leftists who angrily reject the whole notion, even as I ask, What about X, who says it was like an answered prayer when his parents' 30-something friend initiated him sexually at 13, when for months afterward at the end of the school day he would politely kiss his same-age girlfriend (now his wife of twenty-five years) and then rush to this experienced woman's bed? What about Y, who seduced her married teacher when she was 17 and he 45, and who, thirty years later, has with this same man one of the most loving unions I have ever seen? What about Z, who as a youth regularly sought out the company of older men because, apart from a sexual education, they offered him a safe place for expression, a cultural home, a real home? The priest scandal, which forecloses any attempt to separate vicious crime from pervy nuisance from consenting encounter, has further limited the possibilities for thoughtful discussion on the real things people do and feel, the causes and effects and complex power exchanges of a human activity that does not, and will never, operate according to the precepts of a textbook or lawbook.
Another reason is that Levine's most bombastic critics had not read Harmful to Minors before damning it. Dr. Laura, who called on the University of Minnesota Press to stop the book's release, took her cues from Judith Reisman, who declared Levine an "academic pedophile." A longtime zealot in the trenches of the antipornography cause, Reisman told the New York Times, "It doesn't take a great deal to understand the position of the writer. I didn't read Mein Kampf for many years, but I knew the position of the author." Tim Pawlenty, the Minnesota House majority leader and a Republican hopeful for governor, also admitted to not having read the book before equating the press's role in its publication with "state-sanctioned support for illegal, indecent, harmful activity such as molesting children." Robert Knight, a spokesman for Concerned Women for America who urged the university regents to fire those responsible for publishing this "evil tome," says he "thumbed through it." Knight, whose organization is dedicated to bringing "Biblical principles into all levels of public policy," might consider what, at a practical level, that might mean, starting with Moses' commands to his warriors in the Book of Numbers: "Kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves."
Still, I think Levine would be pilloried by Dr. Laura and her ilk even without the priest scandal and even if she had ignored the subject of sex across the age divide. For the pleasure principle she enunciates challenges the twenty-five-year-old organizing strategy of the right. Ever since Anita Bryant first demonstrated that a power base could be built by attacking homosexuals, the right has exploited real anxieties about sex, love and family to constrain the liberatory spirit, whether expressed by sexual preference, divorce, abortion, contraception, women's freedom or teen sex. This has not managed to send queers back to the closet, lower divorce rates or "protect the children." American teenagers have about four times the pregnancy rate of teens in Western Europe. Those in a program of "abstinence only" education still have sex and are about half as likely to protect themselves than kids who've received broad sex information. Even with abortion rights severely curtailed, US teenagers have abortions at about the rate they did just after Roe v. Wade. One in four has had a sexually transmitted disease; one an hour is infected with HIV; and, not incidentally, among American children one in six is poor. That notwithstanding, the sex panic strategy has succeeded in the only way it had to: creating a movement, with all the institutions, political power, lawmaking capability, grassroots presence and funding that implies, to advance an agenda for everything from global dominance to bedroom snooping. Levine's critics are all part of that project, and since she butts against it almost from the opening pages of her book, they are striking back.
What is more telling is who isn't rushing to the defense. While a group of free-speechers, pro-sex feminists and radical gay activists have generated press releases, opinion pieces, e-mail alerts and letters of support to Levine's publisher, there has been silence from mainstream feminist organizations and the liberal sex-education and child-health establishments. That may be partly because they, too, have felt the sting of Levine's criticism. Rather than build a countermovement to insist on sexual freedom, she writes, such heavyweights as Planned Parenthood, the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, ETR Associates (the largest US mainstream sex-ed publisher), the National Education Association, the Health Information Network and a host of progressive sex educators tried to appropriate the "family values" rhetoric of the right, joining in "a contest to be best at preventing teen sex."
"The Right won," she writes, but the mainstream let it. Comprehensive sex educators had the upper hand in the 1970s, and starting in the 1980s, they allowed their enemies to seize more and more territory, until the Right controlled the law, the language, and the cultural consensus.... Commenting on its failure to defend explicit sexuality education during an avalanche of new HIV infection among teenagers, Sharon Thompson [author of the engrossing book on sex and love among teenage girls, Going All the Way] said, "We will look back at this time and indict the sex-education community as criminal. It's like being in a nuclear power plant that has a leak, and not telling anybody."
Throughout the Clinton era those forces largely stood by as the most sexually reckless President in memory signed a sheaf of repressive legislation, acts with names like Defense of Marriage, Abstinence Only, Personal Responsibility and Child Pornography Protection. The last on that list, capping a legal trend that, as Levine says, "defined as pornography pictures in which the subject is neither naked, nor doing anything sexual, nor...is even an actual child," was recently struck down by the Supreme Court. The second to last, also known as the welfare bill, is up for reauthorization this year, along with its enhancements of penalties for statutory rape and its policing of teen sex, motherhood and marriage. As part of that bill the Clintonites fanned the notion that minors were too young to consent to sex with an adult, while in criminal law they eased the way for prosecuting children as adults and jailing them as adults, in which circumstance consent usually isn't an issue. To grasp the effect of liberal silence about Levine, it is perhaps enough to recall one name: Dr. Joycelyn Elders, sacked by Clinton as Surgeon General in 1994 for saying that masturbation is part of childhood and it doesn't hurt to talk about it. Elders has written an eloquent and sensible foreword to Harmful to Minors. Back when Elders was twisting in the wind ABC's Cokie Roberts called her "a sort of off-to-the-left, out-of-the-mainstream, embarrassing person"; now the Washington Times insinuates she's soft on molestation. From self-abuse to child abuse in eight years, one absurd charge prepares the ground for the other.
That said, it's too easy to read the reception of Levine's book as simply more evidence of right-wing lunacy and liberal retreat. What the brouhaha also signals in its small way is a failure of the left. In organizing around issues of sex, love and family, the right has surely been cynical but at least it speaks to the deepest questions of intimate life. Its answers are necessarily simplistic and straitened. The family is falling apart? It's the homos. Marriage seems impossible? It's the libbers. Sex brings suffering? Just say No. Love seems distant? Await the Rapture. Except for a small group of queer radicals and pro-sex feminists, to the extent that such questions are even entertained on the left, the answers tend toward a mixture of social engineering and denial: There's nothing wrong with the family that an equitable economy, divorce or gay marriage won't fix. Marriage is possible; equality is the key. If sex ed was better and condoms were free, teens wouldn't get pregnant and wouldn't get AIDS. If abortion is painful, you've been propagandized. If sex is painful, you're doing it wrong. If love is painful, find a new lover.
Levine is too sensitive to the mysteries and complexities of human relations to be characterized as advocating anything so pat as happiness-through-policy in the area of childhood sexuality. But if her putting children and sex together in the same sentence can be read by the right as a call to licentiousness, her heavy emphasis on the pleasure-enhancing possibilities of sex education may encourage readers on the left to believe that kids can be protected from bad sex, mediocre sex, regret, risk, danger, pain. And they can't, any more than adults can. They can't because in matters of sex, desire is a trickster. What you see isn't always what you get, much less what you want, though it may be what you need. In matters of the heart, intimacy means vulnerability means daring to bet against pain. As with all bets, sometimes, often, you lose.
Levine actually makes this point but she so wants kids to have better information, better experiences--and she argues so well and hard for these--that somehow it gets lost. Citing a study showing that 72 percent of teenage girls who'd had sex wished they had waited, Levine wonders whether this regret isn't perhaps really about romantic disappointment and asks, "Might real pleasure, in a sex-positive atmosphere, balance or even outweigh regret over the loss of love?" Can we know pleasure without pain? one might ask in return. Can regret over lost love, at any age, be so easily balanced? Even sidestepping those twisting lines of inquiry, isn't the promise of "real pleasure" as much a romantic ideal, as much an invitation to disappointment, as the promise of true love, especially for the young? However wished, it's not so easy to disentangle sex from the hope for love, to revel in pure, transporting sensuality without letting expectations, not to mention fumbling technique, get in the way. It doesn't have to, and it doesn't always, but sex can change everything between two people. We are weak, after all, and life's little joke is that in that weakness lies the potential for our ecstasy and our despair.
This isn't to discount the lifesaving value of open education about sex, condoms, desire, freedom. (And because discussions like this always force one to state the obvious, I'll also note that nothing in the foregoing should suggest that I oppose equality, economic redistribution, abortion rights, child safety, sexual liberation, the search for love or, so long as heterosexuals insist on having the state sanction their unions via the marriage contract, divorce and gay marriage.) But rather than promise kids a world of good sex--like promising a world of happy marriages, monogamous fulfillment, self-sustaining nuclear families--maybe it's more helpful to explain sex as the sea of clear water, giddy currents, riptides, sounding depths and rocky shoals that it is. You navigate, find wonder in the journey, scrape yourself up, press on anyway and survive. And sometimes, sometimes, you experience a bliss beyond expression. The political job is to expand the possibilities for such experience, to free people to navigate, help them survive the hurt or not hurt so bad. Maybe if we could be honest about sex, we could be honest about marriage and monogamy and family. Maybe if so much didn't hinge on an outsized faith in pleasure and fidelity and romantic love--if for people in couples or families, everything didn't depend on the thin reed of love, and for people alone, coupledom wasn't held out as the apex of happiness--all the talk we hear about community might actually mean something. The greatest virtue in Levine's book is its hope that children might learn to find joy in the realm of the senses, the world of ideas and souls, so that when sex disappoints and love fails, as they will, a teenager, a grown-up, still has herself, and a universe of small delights and strong hearts to fall back on.
It was an early November morning when I met Gairam Muminov on the steps of a courthouse on the outskirts of Tashkent, the sprawling capital of Uzbekistan. He was leaning against a white stone banister, nervously smoking a cigarette. His thin, sunburned face was carved with deep furrows and strained by even
deeper worries, which seemed to manifest themselves most intensely around his dark gray eyes. Inside the courthouse, local authorities were keeping his son, Abdulvali, locked up for participating in a forbidden religious group. Although Muminov's job as a builder prevented him from attending the trial, the 57-year-old father had come that morning to find out firsthand how long his son would be imprisoned. Abdulvali's sentencing was scheduled to begin at 10 am.
When the time came, we entered the Akmal Ikramov District Court, a rundown edifice of cheap marble and concrete located on a dusty road beside the city's Police Station No. 2. Inside it was dim. On the first floor, an unusually large, bone-dry fountain and a portrait of Uzbek President Islam Karimov were visible beneath the few fluorescent lights. The sentencing was to be held in a room on the second floor. Standing by the door, in a gloomy hallway, were the families of nine other young convicts who had been tried with Abdulvali. They waited in an atmosphere of tense anticipation. Some mothers smoothed out their brightly patterned dresses in silence; others explained why they thought this case might be different: With the US-led war on terrorism under way and renewed international attention brought to the Karimov regime's harsh crackdown on independent religious expression, they hoped the usually unforgiving Uzbek justice system might--just this once--tilt toward leniency.
It was, in many ways, a farfetched hope. The ten men were arrested for participating in the pan-Islamic group known as Hizb ut-Tahrir, what Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid in his new book calls "the most popular, widespread underground movement in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan." The movement shuns violence but is no less radical because of that. As Rashid explains, Central Asian acolytes of Hizb ut-Tahrir, which was founded by dispossessed Palestinians in Saudi Arabia and Jordan in 1953, foresee "a moment when millions of its supporters will simply rise up and topple the Central Asian governments--particularly the Karimov regime--by sheer force of numbers." In place of the region's various secular states, the movement seeks to fashion a single Taliban-style Islamic republic stretching from the Caspian Sea to western China and beyond. It's a threat that the local autocracies, as well as Washington, take seriously. According to its leadership, Hizb ut-Tahrir has already attracted tens of thousands of members in the region. And while two years ago the Clinton Administration narrowly concluded that the movement did not sponsor terrorist activities, Rashid argues: "The fear is that young [members]... may soon ignore their elders' advice and turn to guerrilla warfare."
That fear may be somewhat hasty. But for the government in Tashkent, it has been amplified by the activities of a much more militant insurgency known as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, or IMU, whose leaders made just such a transformation from nonviolence roughly ten years ago. Since 1998, when the IMU officially came into being, it has clashed with the government forces of three states, engaged in kidnappings and the drug trade, and engendered an atmosphere of distrust and hostility among the region's strongmen. The movement's leadership has established close links with Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and even moved the IMU headquarters to northern Afghanistan when the more welcoming Taliban regime was in power. Uzbek President Karimov blames the IMU, among other opposition groups, for detonating a series of car bombs in Tashkent in February 1999. The explosions killed thirteen people, injured more than a hundred and touched off the latest and harshest in a series of government campaigns against independent religious expression and political dissent. Following the bombings, Karimov announced that even the fathers of sons who participated in IMU activities would be arrested. "If my child chose such a path," he said, "I myself would rip off his head."
However, again and again, Rashid rightly argues in Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia that the growing popular support for groups like the IMU and Hizb ut-Tahrir are largely a response to the corrupt Karimov government's inability to bring even a modicum of economic prosperity or democracy to Uzbekistan, the region's natural axis of power. Central Asia has known harsh leadership and violent upheaval before. Prior to the Soviets there were the czars, and prior to the czars there were the local khans, who ruled brutally. However, when the republics of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan fell into independence following the collapse of Communism, they not only experienced a crisis of national identity (none had ever existed before as an independent state), they also joined a more integrated world, where political and economic expectations for open and fair governance are arguably higher than they have ever been. All this, at a moment of religious reawakening across the region.
In this context, Central Asia's radical Islamic movements were very much forged in a modern political pressure cooker. "In a series of crackdowns in 1992, 1993, and after 1997, Karimov arrested hundreds of ordinary pious Muslims for alleged links with Islamic fundamentalists, accusing them of being Wahhabis"--converts to the strict brand of Islam embraced by the Taliban--"closing down mosques and madrassahs, and forcing mullahs into jail or exile," Rashid writes. "The result of these repressive policies has been the growth of exactly what Karimov feared: extremist Islamic militancy."
A visit to Uzbek courts is a good way to see this machinery in motion: the steady spinning of the gears that wind moderate Muslims into radicals. Here too, the display is one of the precarious fragility of Uzbekistan's current order, and I can think of no better corollary to Rashid's careful descriptions of a region approaching the edge of chaos than the observations of Bill Berkeley, a journalist who has spent numerous years reporting from Africa. "Many suppose that tyranny and anarchy are at opposite ends of a linear spectrum," Berkeley has written. "But often they are side by side on what might better be described as a circle: the one is a product of the other, and vice versa." For a number of Central Asian states, that circle has been getting tighter and tighter over the past decade, and the ouster of the Taliban regime from Afghanistan has done little to prevent it from shrinking toward its explosive focal point.
The anarchy of tyranny is starkly evident in a place like the Akmal Ikramov District Court. After Gairam Muminov and the other families had waited for several hours, frustration and impatience set in. A few splintered off to find a bailiff or clerk, but no one was able to find out when, exactly, the sentencing was to occur. An Uzbek journalist waiting with me explained: "The authorities do this on purpose. They want to wear people down; they are counting on people like you and me to get tired, hungry. Maybe we will have to leave for business or lunch, and then suddenly the doors will open and court begins. This way they can say they are being open but attract the minimum amount of attention." However, at 3 pm, when Judge Nizom Rustamov, a stout and smug man in a shiny sharkskin suit, finally ambled up the courthouse steps, a slightly different picture emerged--that of the unaccountable bureaucrat who probably decided against rushing to work simply because he could. Matilda Bogner, Uzbekistan's Human Rights Watch representative, described the judge this way: "Rustamov is known to have sentenced someone to the death penalty for possessing fertilizer at home because fertilizer can be used as an ingredient in the making of explosives."
Such capricious power infests Uzbekistan's neighboring governments as well. As the Soviet Union began to implode, none of the five Central Asian republics rushed to embrace independence, democracy or economic reform. Indeed, leaderships in a number of the republics actively plotted to stymie the demise of the Communist system, however rotted, because it had been nourishing them so well. As Rashid demonstrates, this reluctance to break away was to a large degree ironic, given the region's vast reserves of natural resources--primarily in oil, gas and minerals--and its potential for prosperity (not to mention the potential to funnel that prosperity into the hands of local elites). Moreover, as he points out, "the Soviet policies of closed borders, forced cotton agriculture, farm collectivization, population relocation and--most significant--Stalin's redrawing of the map of Central Asia to create five incongruous states had left the region economically hard-pressed, [and] ethnically and politically divided."
Ten years on, much of Central Asia remains mired in its Soviet inheritances: petty and sometimes not-so-petty corruption are a part of everyday life; news is censored, often heavily; dissidents are imprisoned, exiled or caused to disappear; resources are squandered; environmental damage continues unabated. Yet, as the region remains politically and in many ways economically stagnant, it is experiencing a demographic surge. "The population gets younger," Rashid notes. "More than 60 percent of the region's 50 million people are under the age of 25. This new generation is unemployed, poorly educated, and hungry--how long will it continue to tolerate the decline in living standards and the lack of rudimentary freedoms?"
There is no easy answer to this question. And Rashid is shrewd enough to avoid offering one. Just as he is sensitive to the dangers that could well belong to the region's future, he shows with great nuance that important differences among the five republics have already led to a diversity of outcomes. Turkmenistan, for instance, is now ruled by a bizarre hermit-dictator who had himself decreed President for Life, a position he plans to hold until 2010, when he intends to retire. Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan, the only country of the five not to become an immediate heir to its Soviet-era leader, has shown a promising willingness to reform, even if that willingness has waned over the past several years. However, if these two countries sit at the region's political poles, the most intriguing case among them may be Tajikistan, which in Rashid's eyes serves as both a warning and a potential model for its neighbors.
Not long after the Soviet collapse, mountainous Tajikistan fell into a five-year civil war that appeared to mirror the conditions in neighboring Afghanistan. From 1992 to 1997 the multiparty conflict, which primarily cut across clan lines but also included Islamic rebels, democrats and former Communist bosses as the main combatants, claimed the lives of more than 50,000 people and forced roughly 750,000 people from their homes. In Rashid's view, the primary engine of that conflict was the Islamic Renaissance Party, or IRP--Central Asia's first popular Muslim fundamentalist movement--which led a unified band of rebel groups from headquarters based in Afghanistan and Russia. The fighting might have ground on indefinitely (or remained frozen in stalemate), but in 1996 "the regional equation changed dramatically when the Taliban captured Kabul," says Rashid. Fear that the Taliban regime would project its influence into Afghanistan's post-Soviet neighbors pushed the rest of Central Asia and Russia to force the Tajik government into making the necessary concessions for peace. A year later, the parties signed an agreement that legitimized the IRP and brought it into Tajikistan's new coalition government.
The complexity of Tajikistan's civil war makes it difficult to summarize neatly, and perhaps for this reason, coupled with its remoteness, it received scant attention in the West. For Rashid, though, the outcome is one that must not be ignored, not only because the peace agreement held the country together over subsequent years but also because the radical IRP has seen a dramatic loss in popular support since its inclusion in government. "In many ways," Rashid argues, "Tajikistan is the key to peace and stability in Central Asia--something the international community must recognize, and soon." The logic being: Bringing fundamentalist Islamic groups into the light rather than driving them underground is the best way to show that their platforms are unworkable and at odds with the region's traditionally moderate religious sentiments.
This may be true, but Tajikistan's civil war is an unlikely example to prove it, primarily because the conflict was largely one of regionally based clans vying for political and economic power. Although radical Islam colored the conflict, it was by no means the driving force. The coalition government, if anything, was a joining of competing warlords dressed in various ideologies and beliefs rather than a bridging of deeply held convictions on secular and Islamic fundamentalist state-building. This difference must be obvious to Rashid, who awkwardly suggests the coalition government is an instance of the latter while acknowledging the former, sometimes in dramatically confusing ways. At one point, he writes that Soviet "collectivization...had fragmented the clan structure.... Thus, many Tajiks saw the Islamic revival as a means to cement a Tajik identity and ensure Tajikistan's development as a unified state." Then, later, he writes that "most Tajiks identified with their regions and clans rather than with their country." And later again: "The civil war had quickly become a battle between clans rather than an Islamic jihad." This last statement is by far the more realistic and complete assessment--one echoed by Central Asia scholar Martha Brill Olcott, who has argued that the "larger issues contested in Tajikistan's civil war were clearly those of economic and political control."
In fact, the weakness of the government--its inability to protect Tajikistan's borders and control its rugged territory--has made the country an ideal base for the region's most extreme militants and best organized drug traders (often one and the same). Today, roughly 70 percent of the world's heroin funnels through Tajikistan from Afghanistan, and since the early 1990s Tajikistan's Tavildara Valley has been an important training area for the IMU's charismatic military leader Jumaboi Khojaev, a former Soviet paratrooper who later assumed the name Juma Namangani after his hometown, Namangan, Uzbekistan. The kind of detailed portrait Rashid has sketched of Namangani, who was recently reported killed alongside Al Qaeda and Taliban units during the latest war in Afghanistan, is unparalleled. This is where Rashid is at his best, especially when he shows how the secretive Central Asian rebel makes unusual company with Osama bin Laden, despite their close ties. During one of Rashid's many exclusive interviews in the region, a former Namangani compatriot explained how the notorious rebel was "shaped by his own military and political experiences rather than Islamic ideology, but he hates the Uzbek government--that is what motivates him above all. In a way, he is a leader by default because no other leader is willing to take such risks to oppose Karimov."
This in many ways appears to be a capsule characterization of militant Islam in Central Asia, where religious extremism is primarily harnessed to the cause of political and military aims, whether in internecine clan warfare, in insurgencies acting against repression or in the meddling of outside empires. As readers of the great historian Peter Hopkirk might recognize, Namangani's pragmatism situates him in a long-running Central Asian tradition in which strategic objectives rather than fundamentalist religious ones ultimately lie behind the call to jihad. It was a move even the Soviets tried. In 1920 Grigori Zinoviev, a close associate of Lenin, called the Muslims of Central Asia to battle at a weeklong rally in Baku, Azerbaijan. "Brothers," Zinoviev boomed to a wildly fervent crowd brandishing swords and revolvers, "we summon you to a holy war, in the first place against English imperialism!" This display fell in with a briefly held plan Moscow had at the time: fomenting a chain of uprisings and establishing an "Army of God" that would penetrate India through Afghanistan and trigger enough Muslim unrest there to subvert Britain's hold over South Asia. However, as Hopkirk notes in Setting the East Ablaze (and as the United States learned painfully after aiding militants in Afghanistan in the 1980s), cultivating pan-Islam "could be double-edged." Religious and nationalist sentiments could just as easily flow against Moscow. The Basmachis, Central Asia's homegrown mujahedeen, resisted Soviet power for more than a decade after the Russian Revolution--and with a good deal of support from the British, who slipped them caravans of arms and munitions from India.
Today, although the spirit of jihad has largely been unhinged from the machinations of outside empires intent on controlling the region, its proponents see themselves very much as bearers of the Basmachi tradition, as Rashid demonstrates. But his book is also instructive in pointing out differences between the region's Islamic groups of then and now. Hizb ut-Tahrir's growing popularity suggests that outside influences of a very different kind are leaking into Central Asia. (Along with the IMU, Hizb ut-Tahrir's adherents subscribe to the strict Wahhabist brand of Islam, which originated in Saudi Arabia, rather than the more indigenous Sufism, which tends toward mysticism rather than millenarianism.) This time it's happening at the grassroots--and feeding off the criminality of local regimes.
There is probably no way to know whether Gairam Muminov's son, Abdulvali, was truly a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir or was simply caught praying in the wrong place, or listening to the wrong person, or carrying the wrong leaflet. I'm sure even his lawyer doesn't know. When one of the accused suggested that they had been tortured to confess (to "anti-constitutional crimes"), Judge Rustamov would not hear of it. The next day, I watched Muminov's hands shoot up to his face when Rustamov sentenced his son to ten years of imprisonment. And as the father slowly drew his shaky fingers away, his mouth fell open, his eyes turned blank. I wondered: Earlier, this man shrugged off my criticisms of Uzbekistan's ironfisted approach to dissent, saying he had all the freedom in the world--limitless choices in the marketplace, among whichever apples and oranges he desired. Was that still good enough for him?
That is a question the United States must begin asking if it intends to become more active in fostering stability in the region. Rashid's book--which follows his bestseller, Taliban--was rushed to publication after September 11, so it is understandably short on evaluating current US Central Asia policy. But it is the first good, hard look at the region's Islamic movements and deserves the attention of policymakers and interested everyday readers alike. The careful consideration Rashid has given the grassroots causes that set these insurgencies into motion will keep this book relevant for a long time to come. As Rashid argues: "The Clinton administration policy of helping Central Asia's repressive governments combat terrorism whilst mildly lecturing them on their human-rights violations did not constitute a strategic vision for the region." It still doesn't. Under the George W. Bush Administration, military and economic aid to the region has increased; so too, it seems, has the repression.
Reading Robert Caro to learn about Lyndon Johnson is like going to an elaborate buffet in order to get the four basic food groups; they both give you what you need along with much, much more. In fact, we're only at the appetizers, since Caro's third and latest volume, Master of the Senate, comes in at over1,000 pages and still doesn't take the story up through the 1960 election! Nonetheless, both are experiences to be savored. Caro is a gifted and passionate writer, and his all-encompassing approach to understanding LBJ provides readers with a panoramic history of twentieth-century American politics as well as a compelling discourse on the nature and uses of political power.
Moreover, in the midst of the plagiarism contretemps over Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin, it is refreshing to read a popular history that is original and well written. There is clearly no "Caro Inc." with an army of researchers cutting and pasting books together as fast as the printing presses can take them. Aided only by his wife, Ina, Caro's project is now in its third decade. This slow pace results from a methodical and exhaustive research process. One might well disagree with Caro's analysis and interpretations, but no one can accuse him of overlooking an important piece of evidence.
In reality, Master of the Senate is not one book but several. Caro sets the stage with a history of the United States Senate. The Senate is virtually unique among legislative bodies in any modern democracy. With its six-year terms, equal representation for each state regardless of population and its tradition of unlimited debate, the Senate is an institution designed for inaction. Individual senators have little or no incentive to yoke themselves together to advance the national interest. By the time Johnson entered the Senate in 1949, the body was increasingly seen as too inefficient to meet the demands of modern government. Since the turn of the century, the President had increasingly usurped its power in foreign policy, and many observers predicted that the Senate would eventually have to go the way of most legislative upper chambers and become, in effect, an American House of Lords.
That the Senate did not wither away and the reasons for this fact form the basis for another of Caro's books within a book, Lyndon Johnson's ascent to "Master of the Senate." Possessed of ambition that can only be described as obsessive, Johnson campaigned to increase his own power and influence with a relentlessness and ruthlessness that would have made Machiavelli blush.
Before Johnson could amass power in the Senate, however, he first had to shore up his political base in Texas. Having only narrowly "won" (stolen is the more appropriate word, as Caro vividly and convincingly demonstrated in his previous volume) election to the Senate in 1948, Johnson now had to prove his fealty to the Lone Star State's reactionary and powerful oil and gas titans. To do so, Johnson organized a behind-the-scenes campaign to block President Truman's reappointment of Leland Olds as chairman of the Federal Power Commission. A staunch New Dealer and a committed public servant, Olds had used his position at the FPC to make sure that electric and natural gas companies did not gouge their customers. As a result, he was anathema to the Texas natural gas companies, who saw even the smallest and most reasonable limitation of their already vast profits as socialist tyranny.
In earlier days, Johnson had fought the same fight as Olds, working as a freshman Congressman to provide cheap electricity to rural farmers. Doing so had secured Johnson a place in the hearts of his poor Texas Hill Country constituents, but that counted for little against the political power of the state's oil and gas industry. Ambition now required Johnson to destroy Leland Olds. Unable to attack him on the substance of his work at the FPC, Johnson instead distorted Olds's writings as a journalist in the 1920s to portray him as a Communist. Using a phrase that Joe McCarthy would have appreciated, Johnson denounced Olds on the floor of the Senate, asking, "Shall we have a commissioner or a commissar?" The choice of the Senate was clear; the Olds reappointment failed by a vote of 53 to 15.
The Olds fight secured Johnson's political base and brought him into the warm embrace of the Texas establishment. After his victory over Olds, Johnson flew back to Texas on the private plane of Brown & Root, the giant Texas construction company. "When the Brown & Root plane delivered him to Texas, it delivered him first to Houston, where a Brown & Root limousine met him and took him to the Brown & Root suite in the Lamar Hotel. Waiting for him there, in Suite 8-F, were men who really mattered in Texas: Herman and George Brown, of course, and oilman Jim Abercrombie and insurance magnate Gus Wortham. And during the two months he spent in Texas thereafter, the Senator spent time at Brown & Root's hunting camp at Falfurrias, and in oilman Sid Richardson's suite in the Fort Worth Club."
Caro shows how, having won over the men who really mattered in Texas, Johnson set out to win over the men who really mattered in the Senate, the "Old Bulls." As a result of the Solid South and the seniority rule, nearly all of these men were the Southern barons who controlled the powerful Senate committees. In many ways, currying favor with the Texas establishment had been relatively easy; all it had required was destroying the naïve and principled Leland Olds. But the Old Bulls, men like Harry Byrd Sr. of Virginia, Walter George of Georgia and Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee, were a much tougher crowd, not easily deceived and viciously protective of their power and prerogatives. Traditionally, one did not attain power by winning over such men; rather, power came by becoming one of them. But this required the time and patience necessary to accumulate enough seniority to land a choice committee assignment and then more time and patience to ascend to the chairmanship.
But, as Caro points out, Johnson had a very short supply of time and patience. Indeed, he had risked everything to run for the Senate in 1948 in order to avoid the seniority trap of the House. Now he found himself in the same bind. Even before he was sworn in, Johnson tried to persuade the venerable Carl Hayden, chairman of the Senate Rules Committee, which was in charge of office space, to give him an extra room. When Johnson pressed his case too zealously, the usually courteous Hayden shut him down, saying, "The trouble with you, Senator, is that you don't have the seniority of a jackrabbit."
If Johnson didn't have the seniority to become one of the Old Bulls, he would surely do everything he could to gain their favor. The usual method was obsequiousness, telling these men how powerful and important they were, and how much he had learned from them. According to Caro, Johnson's behavior "proved the adage that no excess was possible."
One device, also favored by a more recent Texas politician, was to bestow nicknames. Edwin "Big Ed" Johnson of Colorado was dubbed "Mr. Wisdom," while Leverett Saltonstall of Massachusetts became "Old Oil on Troubled Waters." Johnson resented having to use such tactics, telling aide John Connally after fawning over a senior senator, "Christ, I've been kissing asses all my life"; but ass-kissing worked. As Caro writes, "In December, Hayden had refused to give Johnson that extra room in the basement that he had asked for; in February Hayden found that an extra room was, indeed, available."
While Hayden had the power to provide extra office space, real power in the Senate rested with the acknowledged leader of the Old Bulls, Richard Russell of Georgia. Just as Johnson in his earlier career had gained power by making himself a protégé of House Speaker Sam Rayburn and President Franklin Roosevelt, he now set out to cultivate Russell. Though different in temperament and politics, all three men shared a common element that Johnson used to ingratiate himself: As Caro points out, all three men were lonely. Both Rayburn and Russell were childless bachelors, while Roosevelt was largely estranged from his children and wife. This provided the perfect opportunity for Johnson to be the dutiful son and companion.
Mere companionship and filial piety, however, were not enough to win over Russell. According to Caro, "It wasn't a son that Richard Russell wanted, it was a soldier--a soldier for the Cause." And that cause was white supremacy. In describing Russell's views on this issue, Caro shows that while they were almost always cast as a reasoned, nonracist defense of states' rights, racism was at their core, and such moderation was merely tactical. "His charm," writes Caro, "was more effective than chains in keeping blacks shackled to their terrible past." Caro's description of Russell is not just of historical interest. With calls for states' rights gaining renewed popularity and legitimacy, it is important to remember that while not every states' rights advocate is a closet racist, nearly every advocate of racial inequality has used states' rights to cloak his real aims and beliefs.
Johnson was willing to take up arms for Russell's cause. In his maiden speech in the Senate, Johnson denounced President Truman's call for civil rights legislation in the same reasoned tones used by Russell. When Johnson finished, Russell was the first to shake his hand, telling him that his speech was "one of the ablest I have ever heard on the subject."
Having gained Russell's and the Old Bulls' trust, Johnson now began to build his own power. In 1950, after the outbreak of the Korean War, he convinced Russell to allow him to chair a special committee on preparedness. Caro's description of Johnson's committee is a textbook example of the Washington version of stone soup, in which, with the right skills and connections, one can turn nothing into something. For the most part, the committee did very little original research or investigation, instead recycling work done by other committees and agencies. The difference, however, was that Johnson had a gift for working the media. In this pretelevision era, the term "soundbite" had yet to be coined, but Johnson was a master of it nonetheless. The committee's first report was really an earlier, prewar report on the nation's rubber supply. In the hands of Johnson and his staffer Horace Busby, the report became a major story. "Phrases like 'darkest days,' 'business as usual,' 'too little and too late' leapt out of the final report," writes Caro. Newspapers were particularly enamored of Johnson's description of Defense Department desuetude as "siesta psychology."
Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of substance, the preparedness committee gave Johnson his first national attention. But the favor of the Old Bulls and a handful of headlines were not nearly enough to secure Johnson's ultimate prize, the presidency. Recognizing that the traditional path to power in the Senate, and ultimately to the White House, was still largely closed to a junior senator, Johnson decided to create his own path. Here was where Johnson's cunning as a political entrepreneur came into play. As Caro writes:
Lyndon Johnson's political genius was creative not merely in the lower, technical aspects of politics but on much higher levels. And if there was a single aspect of his creativity that had been, throughout his career, most impressive, it was his capacity to look at an institution that possessed only limited political power--an institution that no one else thought of having the potential for any more than limited political power--and to see in that institution the potential for such substantial political power; to transform that institution so that it possessed such power, and in the process of transforming it, to reap from that transformation substantial personal power for himself.
Johnson aide Bobby Baker put it more succinctly: "He knows what makes the mules plow."
The institution that Johnson chose was the party leadership of the Senate. Almost utterly lacking in formal power, party leadership was more often the graveyard of political careers than the launching pad. No Senate Democratic leader had possessed any influence to speak of since Joseph Robinson in the 1930s. The Democratic leaders immediately preceding Johnson, Scott Lucas of Illinois and Ernest McFarland of Arizona, had been disasters, utterly incapable of bridging the differences between the party's liberal Northern and conservative Southern wings. In fact, the demands of the job had contributed to the election defeats of both men, Lucas in 1950 and McFarland in 1952. Now, following the Republican sweep of 1952, the position of minority leader stood open. Since no else wanted the position, Johnson, with Russell's blessing, ascended to the post. Only four years into his first term, Lyndon Johnson was now at least the nominal leader of the Senate Democrats.
And Johnson soon converted nominal leadership in their power, explaining that they needed to put their best people forward to defend against the Republicans. But that would require handing out committee positions on the basis of ability, not seniority. Using a combination of persuasion and horse-trading, Johnson managed to make enough room to place every Democrat on at least one major committee. In doing so, he transformed the Senate, imbuing its committees, at least on the Democratic side, with fresh blood. More important for Johnson, his own power had been enhanced greatly. Dozens of members, liberals and conservatives, Northerners and Southerners, now owed their committee assignments to him, and that meant power.
Revamping the seniority system was but the first way Johnson became master of the Senate. While much has been written about the famous Johnson "treatment," LBJ's in-your-face style of persuasion, Caro demonstrates that these skills, effective though they were, were not the only ones at his disposal. Deploying a skilled staff, he soon knew more about what was happening in the Senate than any other member, making him the "go-to guy" for information. He managed to negotiate unanimous consent agreements to limit debate, so that minor bills of importance to individual senators could be passed with dispatch. Johnson was also a skilled parliamentarian, using his knowledge of Senate rules and procedures to outwit the majority Republicans. Finally, Johnson had an astute grasp of national politics, demonstrated most effectively in the battle over the Bricker Amendment. Advanced by Republican isolationists, the constitutional amendment would have severely restricted presidential power in foreign policy by requiring treaties to be approved by the state legislatures as well as the Senate. Johnson not only managed to defeat the amendment but to do so in a way that aligned the Democrats with the popular Eisenhower against Congressional Republicans.
No method was beneath Johnson. He was just as willing to destroy the careers of his Senate colleagues as he had been with Leland Olds. Perhaps more than any other senator, Kentucky's Earle Clements had been loyal to Johnson, "dog loyal," in Caro's words. But after a bill supported by Johnson failed to pass on a tie vote, Johnson forced Clements to switch his vote, although he knew it would destroy Clements's re-election hopes. In the case of Virgil Chapman, also of Kentucky, Johnson helped to destroy not only his career but his life. Even though Johnson knew Chapman was falling further and further into the depths of alcoholism, his response was not compassion but manipulation. He would bring Chapman to his office after the Senate recessed and ply him with drinks until the inebriated Kentuckian would agree to anything Johnson wanted. Chapman eventually died in a drunk driving accident.
Johnson's success as minority leader helped the Democrats regain control of the Senate after the 1954 elections. Now the majority leader, Johnson further extended his power. As a consequence, the Senate began to act with new efficiency and effectiveness. And even though Johnson never strayed too far from Russell and the other conservative senators upon whom he relied, he still managed to help Democratic liberals to achieve at least some of their legislative goals. By the mid-1950s, the changes wrought by Johnson had dispelled much of the criticism leveled against the Senate.
Caro, however, suggests that Johnson might have destroyed the Senate in order to save it, since these changes came at the cost of diminishing deliberations, where individual senators could educate and inform the public on the great issues of the day. He quotes Paul Douglas, liberal Democratic senator from Illinois during the 1950s and oftentimes a foe of Johnson, who charged, "Under Johnson, the Senate functions like a Greek tragedy. All the action takes place offstage, before the play begins. Nothing is left to open and spontaneous debate, nothing is left to the participants but the enactment of their prescribed roles." Caro goes further, suggesting that by limiting debate, Johnson was making the Senate an expression of his own mania for control and aversion to debate and dissent.
Regardless of Johnson's real motivations for limiting debate, this is an overly romantic view of Senate proceedings, in which debate consists more of partisan bickering and mundane bloviating than reasoned and informed discourse. Furthermore, unlimited debate is tailor-made for defenders of the status quo, allowing them great power to block any measure to which they object. Caro even seems to acknowledge this in a footnote, where he quotes Johnson aide Harry McPherson, "Complaints about limiting debates...often turned out to be based on a plaintiff's annoyance that he must either miss a vote or forgo a speaking engagement back home. And besides, who knew better than liberals the enervating consequences of unlimited debate."
Caro may be right that Johnson saved the Senate, but he doesn't consider whether it was worth saving in the first place. Yes, Johnson did reform the chamber so that it could legislate more effectively, but the institution remained and remains a throwback to a predemocratic era. Not only does the Senate's equal representation of states grossly distort the one-person, one-vote principle, but the ability to filibuster means that forty-one senators, even if they represent the twenty-one smallest states (with only 11 percent of the total population), can veto any piece of legislation. And since Republicans predominate in small states, the institution serves only to magnify their power. For example, even though Democrats have a 50-49 edge in the current Senate (the remaining member is Independent Jim Jeffords of Vermont), sixty senators represent states won by George W. Bush in the 2000 election. By saving the Senate, one might argue, Johnson only succeeded in maintaining an institution that has traditionally served to reinforce conservatives and the status quo.
In 1956, Johnson thought the time was right to make his move for the Democratic nomination. But this effort was doomed before it even began. First, he refused to be an active candidate, thus much of the support from the South and West that might have been his if he wanted it went to other candidates. Even if Johnson had run a more active and skillful campaign, it was clear that he never had enough liberal support to win the nomination. For all that he had accomplished in the Senate, Johnson was still viewed as suspect by Democratic liberals. In some ways, as Caro suggests, the liberals' criticism was unfair. Johnson was no Hubert Humphrey, to be sure, but he was also no Richard Russell or James Eastland. During his twelve years in the Senate, Johnson's Americans for Democratic Action liberal-voting score was fifty-six, just about average for the party and essentially splitting the difference between the Southern Democratic average of thirty-seven and the Northern Democratic average of seventy-five. Moreover, during his tenure as majority leader from 1955 to 1960, Johnson's average score was sixty-five.
But Johnson recognized that his overall ADA score was not the real issue. By the mid-1950s, Democratic liberals increasingly used civil rights as a litmus test for support. According to Caro, Johnson would tell friends privately, "I want to run the Senate. I want to pass the bills that need to be passed. I want my party to do right. But all I ever hear from the liberals is Nigra, Nigra, Nigra." (During the 1964 campaign, Johnson would use the same refrain in a very different context, telling a New Orleans audience of a dying Southern senator who wanted to give one more speech, a good Democratic speech, because the only speeches the people of his state ever heard were "Nigra, Nigra, Nigra.") Caro goes on to add that the conclusion for Johnson was clear:
He knew now that the only way to realize his great ambition was to fight--really fight, fight aggressively and effectively--for civil rights; in fact, it was probably necessary for him not only to fight but to fight and win: given their conviction that he controlled the Senate, the only way the liberals would be satisfied of his good intentions would be if that body passed a civil rights bill. But therein lay a seemingly insoluble dilemma: that way--the only way--did not seem a possible way. Because while he couldn't win his party's presidential nomination with only southern support, he couldn't win it with only northern support either. Scrubbing off the southern taint thoroughly enough within the next four years to become so overwhelmingly a liberal favorite that he could win the nomination with northern votes alone was obviously out of the question, so dispensing with southern support was not feasible: he had to keep the states of the Old Confederacy on his side. And yet a public official who fought for civil rights invariably lost those states.
This dilemma sets up another book within a book and the dramatic climax of Master of the Senate, the battle over the 1957 Civil Rights Act. This is where Caro's gifts as a storyteller really come alive, and his account provides what is surely one of the best analyses of the legislative process ever written. Moreover, Caro is right to label Johnson's role in the passage of this legislation as an exercise of "genius." But Caro goes too far in suggesting that the 1957 Civil Rights Act marked a turning point at which Johnson's "compassion, and the ability to make compassion meaningful, would shine forth at last."
Caro does recognize that the practical impact of the 1957 legislation was inconsequential and far less significant than the later Civil Rights Act of 1964 or the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And while the bill's proponents described it as half a loaf, Caro agrees with Humphrey, who described it as a "crumb." Nonetheless, Caro claims that as the first civil rights measure to pass the Senate and to be enacted into law since 1875, the legislation was of immense symbolic importance and the harbinger of things to come. "The Civil Rights Act of 1957," according to Caro, "was hope." Caro has a point, but a debatable one. The law did raise hopes, but by accomplishing so little, many of those hopes ended up dashed. Furthermore, while the 1957 act was a first step toward more effective legislation, it would take another eight years to complete the journey, eight more years of Jim Crow and disfranchisement, of oppression and violence. Hope was better than nothing, but help is what was really needed.
And help would have been provided then, if not for Lyndon Johnson. Help was contained in the civil rights bill proposed by the Eisenhower Administration and passed by the House, with strong provisions against discrimination in public accommodations and voting, along with effective enforcement mechanisms. But Johnson knew that such a bill was utterly unacceptable to his Southern colleagues. Thus, while Johnson recognized that he had to fight for a civil rights bill, it couldn't be this civil rights bill.
Consequently, Johnson's first maneuver was to help defeat an effort by Republicans and liberal Democrats to rewrite Senate Rule 22 in order to short-circuit the expected Southern filibuster. At the opening of the 1957 session, pro-civil rights senators sought a ruling from Vice President Richard Nixon, acting in his capacity as the Senate's presiding officer, that the Senate was not a continuing body and therefore was not bound by previous rules. That would mean that a majority of senators could establish a new rule allowing debate to be shut off with only a simple majority, not the usual and nearly unobtainable sixty-four votes. Indeed, Nixon, hoping to swing black votes to the GOP, would have issued such a decision. But before he could do so, Johnson used his prerogative as majority leader to move to table the proposed rules change. Using all the skill and power he had amassed as majority leader, Johnson managed to get a majority for his motion. But it was a 55-38 tally. If only seven votes had gone the other way (the three absentees having announced against Johnson's motion), the motion would have lost, Nixon would have issued his decision, the filibuster would have been broken and an effective civil rights bill would have been passed in 1957, not 1964. As a result of the defeat on Rule 22, the bill that ultimately did pass was only a very weak voting rights measure.
If ever one needs evidence of the contingency of history, imagine, if you will, those seven votes going the other way. Jim Crow would have died in the late 1950s, avoiding much of the tumult of the 1960s. The Republicans, led by Richard Nixon, would have been the party of civil rights, not the Democrats and Lyndon Johnson. From there, one can spin off any number of plausible scenarios that result in a very different history of the past forty years.
But none of these scenarios were acceptable to the Lyndon Johnson of 1957, since they would have conflicted with his ambition; and at that point, despite Caro's claim, his ambition was still more important than his compassion. Switching sides on Rule 22 would have destroyed his Southern support and with it any chance he had of becoming President. Johnson's compassion would eventually shine through, and as a result, civil rights would eventually come to black America. But they would not come until Lyndon Johnson's ambition would allow them to come.
The twentieth century was arguably the bloodiest in modern history, earning from one commentator the moniker of the Age of Barbarism. From the Nazi genocide, to the killing fields of Cambodia and Rwanda, to the "ethnically cleansed" areas of the former Yugoslavia, the twentieth century was one of unprecedented horror for many.
Mass slaughter of civilians is, of course, much older than these horrors. The modern world brought about by European expansionism, the famed Pakistani intellectual Eqbal Ahmad once observed, is a time of extraordinary unrecorded holocausts. How many of us, for instance, are familiar with the deaths of upward of 10 million in the Belgian-controlled Congo in the latter nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Or how about Australia's extermination of the indigenous population of Tasmania? The decimation of inferior races in settler colonies, brought about by Western imperialism and the associated legitimizing ideologies, in fact, contends Sven Lindqvist in his brilliant Exterminate All the Brutes, ostensibly laid the groundwork for Hitler's crimes by creating particular habits of thought and political precedents.
What was unique to the twentieth century--and thus the subtitle of Samantha Power's very impressive "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide--was the invention of the very word "genocide" and its establishment as a legal construct outlawing one of the most egregious forms of state terror. That represents a great advancement in the construction of international law and associated political and juridical mechanisms, but the fact that genocide continues to occur and to go unpunished speaks to the difficulties of giving life to a legal regime.
While the parties most responsible for this shortcoming are those that perpetrate genocide, Power focuses much of her opprobrium on the party that is in her estimation best positioned to put an end to or at least significantly curb such horror: the US government. "No US President has ever made genocide prevention a priority," she writes, "and no US President has ever suffered politically for his indifference to its occurrence. It is thus no coincidence that genocide rages on."
The myriad horror stories of this age of genocide have many ugly characters, several of whom Power profiles in her well written and extensively documented book. But there are also many heroes, namely those within and without the US government who have spoken the proverbial truth to power with the goal of making Washington appreciate or acknowledge--and thus take appropriate action--that genocide was taking place in the various case studies that Power carefully details.
Perhaps the biggest hero in Power's book is Raphael Lemkin. A Polish Jew who as a young boy had a fascination with the history of mass slaughters, Lemkin became a lawyer and international legal scholar. He set out to ban the destruction of ethnic, national or religious groups, to end the national sovereignty-granted impunity of state actors who perpetrate such atrocities and to insure universal jurisdiction for their prosecution.
Forced to flee his homeland when the Nazi army invaded in 1939, Lemkin ended up in the United States soon thereafter. He worked indefatigably to bring attention to and to record Hitler's extermination of Jews, while urging Americans to do everything they could to put a stop to it. At the same time, he endeavored to invent a word to characterize such slaughters, one that, in Power's words, "would connote a practice so horrid and so irreparable that the very utterance of the word would galvanize all who heard it." When he coined the term "genocide" in 1944, Western governments and political pundits quickly embraced it. This led Lemkin to assume that actions to codify the term and fight the practices comprehended in it would quickly follow. He soon learned that he had a long fight on his hands--one that he waged incessantly until he died, penniless, in 1959.
Before his demise, however, Lemkin saw the United Nations General Assembly pass the genocide convention on December 9, 1948, the body's first passage of a human rights treaty. And less than two years later, the necessary twenty countries had ratified the convention, making it international law. But he did not live to see the United States ratify it, a necessary step, Lemkin thought, to insure its enforcement, given American power. Indeed, it would not be until 1988 that the Senate did so, but not before attaching a set of reservations, understandings and declarations that insured that the United States itself could never be charged with the crime, thus rendering American approval largely symbolic.
The architects of the convention understood the danger of making Hitler's crimes the standard by which to determine future genocides. States must be able to identify as genocide acts aimed at destroying "in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group"--the legal definition of the crime--well before they have the chance to reach such a scale in order to trigger appropriate actions. (The convention enjoins its signatories to take measures to prevent and punish the crime.) Despite such intentions, the link between genocide and Hitler's so-called Final Solution "would cause endless confusion for policy-makers and ordinary people who assumed that genocide occurred only where the perpetrator of atrocity could be shown, like Hitler, to possess an intent to exterminate every last member of an ethnic, national or religious group."
While the Hitler-standard problem did help to undermine effective responses by American officials and opinion-makers to various post-World War II genocides, there were other dilemmas as well, including the difficulty of believing reports of horrific slaughter. Even in the face of extensive and graphic media coverage, Power writes, "American policymakers, journalists and citizens are extremely slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil." In addition, there is a tendency to assume, before the fact, that the would-be perpetrators of genocide are rational actors who will not engage in horrific terror; that traditional diplomacy can resolve the crisis; and that civilians who keep a low profile during the conflict will survive. At the same time, cold geopolitical calculations underlie official reactions, and they often spin the violence as two-sided, a result of age-old hatreds and thus inevitable, while arguing that any type of serious intervention would be futile and even counterproductive. Thus, not only does Washington abstain from sending troops but it also takes very few steps along a continuum of potential interventions to deter genocide.
This nonresponse, Power demonstrates, is not something unique to the presidencies of George Bush Sr. and Bill Clinton, who emerge looking especially bad. It manifested itself to varying degrees in all the cases she examines, beginning with the Ottoman Turks' slaughter of almost a million Armenians in 1915. The United States under Woodrow Wilson--despite being well informed of Turkey's crimes--did not support the Allies' condemnation of Turkey's crimes against humanity, lest such support undermine American neutrality. Disregarding the pleas of Washington's ambassador, Henry Morgenthau, the Wilson Administration refused even to issue a direct government-to-government appeal to cease the killings or to pressure the Turkish authorities to allow humanitarian aid deliveries to Armenians driven from their homes and on the brink of starvation. For Power, Wilson's nonresponse "established patterns that would be repeated."
But as Power illustrates, it was not simply that the United States did nothing. Often Washington indirectly and directly aided the genocidaires. In Cambodia, for example, the US bombing that preceded Pol Pot's seizure of power "killed tens of thousands of civilians." While horrific in its own right, "it also indirectly helped give rise to a monstrous regime" responsible for the deaths of upwards of an estimated 2 million Cambodians. And in the case of Iraq's slaughter of the Kurds, the Reagan White House dismissed reports of Saddam Hussein's gassings and other atrocities while maintaining aid to his regime, preferring to maintain its unholy alliance with Iraq in its war with Iran. The year after Saddam's forces decimated several thousand Iraqi Kurdish villages and killed close to 100,000 Kurdish civilians (1987-88), Washington, now under Bush Sr., actually doubled the amount of agricultural credit it had been providing to Saddam's regime, increasing it to more than $1 billion.
In other cases, the United States helped to undermine effective international responses to genocide. Perhaps the most shameful case was that involving the Clinton Administration during the 1994 slaughter in Rwanda, which involved the killing of approximately 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the span of 100 days, making it the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the twentieth century. Clinton, whom Power inexplicably refers to as "a committed multilateralist," one with "faith in the United Nations," did everything he could to avoid doing something constructive. Throughout, and similar to their conduct through much of the Serb-perpetrated atrocities in Bosnia, Administration officials feigned ignorance of what was going on. US intelligence reports had warned Washington of the likelihood of mass killings in Rwanda. Nevertheless, Clinton refused Belgium's request to reinforce the small UN peacekeeping mission to the country. And once the killing started, the Administration denied almost until the end that genocide was taking place, despite full knowledge to the contrary. To do otherwise would have required that Washington take appropriate action. Instead, the Administration insisted that UN peacekeepers withdraw from Rwanda and then refused to authorize the deployment of a stronger UN force. It was not until the Rwandan Patriotic Front had driven most of the perpetrators out of the country and seized power in the capital that Clinton ordered the closing of the Rwandan Embassy in Washington and the seizure of its assets.
In her investigation, Power justifies her choice of case studies by two key criteria: that each meets the terms of the 1948 genocide convention; and that it presented the United States with the options for meaningful diplomatic, economic, legal or military intervention. But as we shall see, it is questionable whether all her cases satisfy the criteria.
In terms of the first, to suggest that what took place in Kosovo was a genocide, or would have been had NATO not intervened, is a highly contentious issue in the international legal and human rights community. As for the Khmer Rouge, while they were guilty of killing large percentages of the country's Muslim Chams, Vietnamese and Buddhist monks, the bulk of their human targets were alleged political enemies. In this regard, these killings would not form part of a genocide, at least through the narrow criteria of the 1948 convention.
As Power explains, the architects of the genocide convention made the explicit decision to exclude political groups--a move actively supported by Lemkin. They did so in order to insure the support of many countries, largely those of the Soviet bloc and some from Latin America as well, that feared the inclusion of political groups would inhibit the ability of states to suppress armed rebellions within their boundaries. It appears that Lemkin was sympathetic to neither the underlying assumptions nor the implications of such an argument but supported it for pragmatic reasons--a position that Power seems to share. This might explain why she has no problem including the horrors inflicted by the Khmer Rouge under the general rubric of genocide. But given this more flexible notion of what constitutes genocide, it begs the question of why Power chose the cases she did in laying out her argument and ignored other possible instances.
This question also relates to the second criterion for her choices, namely that the United States had a variety of options available for meaningful intervention. Here, Power is treading on even weaker ground in some instances.
On Rwanda and Bosnia, Power makes her most convincing case that there were concrete steps the United States could have taken that would have had significant effects in lessening the bloodletting. In other instances she examines, however, such as those of the Nazi and Khmer Rouge holocausts, she is less convincing. Regarding Cambodia, for example, she contends that the Khmer Rouge were less immune to outside criticism than was claimed by American authorities. In this regard, she argues that "bilateral denunciations by the United States may well have had little effect on the Khmer Rouge's internal practices. Unfortunately, because so few US officials spoke out publicly against the genocide, we cannot know." In terms of the Nazis, Power appeals to conventional wisdom and suggests that Washington could have done things to prevent Hitler's crimes, but makes no serious effort to persuade the reader or to engage the literature that has called such arguments into question. As Peter Novick argues in his much-acclaimed The Holocaust in American Life, the various ex post facto proposals for rescuing Jews from Nazi clutches ignore what were very real constraints at the time and often would have been of little practical use. Substantial rescue efforts, Novick contends, would have had a marginal effect at best. (Nevertheless, he asserts, it would have been worthwhile to carry out the proposed actions; but they would have saved 1, or perhaps 2 percent at most, of those who died.)
Power applauds US action loudly in the case of Kosovo. Indeed, she argues that hundreds of thousands of lives would have been lost had the United States and its NATO allies not engaged in the bombing campaign against the Serbs. She offers no substantiation for this claim. And, of course, how could she? Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Kosovo chapter, however, is that she does not engage any of the critiques put forth by the likes of Noam Chomsky and other commentators--many writing in this magazine--that there were alternatives to the NATO action, ones that would have been consistent with international law and might have actually lessened the killings and expulsions that increased dramatically after the start of the bombing, to say nothing about its effects on Serb civilians. At the very least, Power should have presented and grappled with such arguments. Hardly anyone contends that Milosevic & Co. were not capable and guilty of enormous brutality. Indeed, Power graphically shows how Serb forces put this capacity to horrific and massive use in Bosnia and the fatal consequences of the failure of the West to acknowledge the bloodshed and respond appropriately. In this regard, mass killings in Kosovo were arguably a distinct possibility. But the question remains, Were there courses of action other than that taken up by Washington and its NATO allies?
Power understandably feels outrage at international and, more specifically, American inaction in the face of mass killing. With an American audience in mind, she challenges the reader to do something--whatever is in her power--to suppress and/or bring to justice those responsible for the slaughter of innocents. She makes a compelling case for a collective moral, as well as an international legal, obligation for the US government to do so. But this also raises what is perhaps the biggest problem with "A Problem From Hell": Even though she acknowledges that the United States sometimes directly and indirectly aids genocidal regimes, the overall effect of her examples and the manner in which she frames the book is to situate Washington as an outsider to such horrors. In the book's final pages, for example, she asks, "Why does the United States stand so idly by?" In this sense, Power's choice of cases is quite safe. Had she looked beyond the parameters of the conventional and examined instances in which the American role in mass slaughter has been less that of a bystander and more that of a partner-in-crime perpetrator, her call for greater levels of US intervention would seem at best unpersuasive and at worst hypocritical and potentially dangerous. Three cases--those of Indonesia, East Timor and Guatemala--illustrate this point.
Led by General Suharto, the Indonesian military and the civilian militia that it armed and directed engaged in one of the worst bloodlettings of the postwar era. Over the course of several months in 1965-66, they slaughtered members of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) along with members of loosely affiliated organizations (women's groups, labor unions, etc.). While Indonesia's holocaust does not meet the strict guidelines of the genocide convention, the scale and nature of the killing spree were undoubtedly genocide-like, similar to the bulk of the Khmer Rouge's crimes in Cambodia. Amnesty International estimated "many more than 1 million killed." The head of the Indonesian state security system approximated the toll at half a million, with another 750,000 jailed or sent to concentration camps. The American political establishment welcomed the slaughter and the emergence of Suharto's New Order, with Time hailing it as "the West's best news for years in Asia."
The United States had effectively helped to lay the groundwork for the military's seizure of power through its interference in Indonesian affairs and support for the military over the years. Washington had also long urged the military to move against the PKI. Accordingly, it supplied weaponry and telecommunications equipment, as well as food and other forms of aid, to the Indonesian Army in the early weeks of the slaughter. The American embassy also provided the military with the names of thousands of PKI cadres who were subsequently killed.
About ten years later, the Indonesian Frankenstein that Washington had helped to create decided to invade Indonesia's tiny neighbor of East Timor. Rather than just looking away, as Power incorrectly reports in her one reference to East Timor, Washington aided and abetted an international crime of aggression. While this has long been alleged, the recent release of formerly classified documents by the Washington-based National Security Archive now proves that then-President Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger, his foreign policy czar, gave Suharto the green light for the December 7, 1975, invasion while meeting with him the previous day. Over the following quarter-century, various US administrations provided billions of dollars in weaponry, military training and economic assistance to Jakarta during its more than two decades of occupation. And in the early years of the slaughter, a time described by an Australian government body as "indiscriminate killing on a scale unprecedented in post-World War II history," Washington took concerted steps to insure that the UN did not take effective action to end Indonesia's annexation. The result was the death of well over 200,000 East Timorese, about one-third of the preinvasion population.
And, finally, Guatemala. There, more than 200,000, most of them indigenous Mayans, lost their lives in the context of a brutal conflict between a US-backed military oligarchy and a guerrilla force during the 1970s and '80s. The 1999 report of the internationally supported Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification concluded that the state was responsible for over 90 percent of the deaths and had committed "acts of genocide." The commission also found that American training of members of Guatemala's intelligence apparatus and officer corps in counterinsurgency "had significant bearing on human rights violations."
Because Samantha Power excludes cases like these from her analysis, she seems to have little problem endorsing American global dominance and, on the basis of such, calling for the United States to take the lead in battling genocide. At the very end of an excellent chapter on the grisly slaughter by Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica, for example, Power lets Senator Bob Dole explain why the United States finally became involved in helping to end the terror in Bosnia. "Because we happen to be the leader of the world," Dole stated.
Clearly there is a problem with Washington taking the lead in fighting something it has helped to perpetrate on numerous occasions, and for which it has never atoned, apart from a halfhearted admission of wrongdoing (but not an apology, by Clinton in the case of Guatemala).
Simply because the United States has been complicit in gross atrocities in the past does not mean, of course, that it is therefore incapable of doing good, if even for the wrong reasons. But it does mean that we should remain extremely skeptical of American leadership on the global stage. As the current Palestinian-Israeli conflict painfully demonstrates, what Washington calls American leadership is, as often as not, unilateralist, bullying, obstructionist. All of these manifest themselves in Washington's acceptance of Israel's flouting of international law regarding its ongoing occupation and dispossession of the Palestinian people. The United States has long been a principal obstacle to an internationally acceptable solution, and it has done what it can to prevent a multilateral approach to resolving the conflict. Such antipathy toward international law and political institutions means that "genocide prevention" could turn out to be just another instrument in Washington's empire-maintenance tool kit.
If one of the main objectives of Power's book is to get the United States to take a more active role in ending mass slaughter, surely it would seem to be more efficacious--as well as principled--to begin by scrutinizing cases in which the United States has been directly involved. In this regard, her appeal to the American political establishment on the basis of morality and enlightened self-interest (genocide, she argues, causes regional and international instability, something bad for the United States) is ill conceived. Ending Washington's role in the slaughter of innocents requires struggling against American militarism and unilateralism, as well as against Washington's refusal to submit to international security and legal mechanisms that would have even a remote possibility of holding US officials accountable. The US refusal to sign on to the recently established International Criminal Court and to cooperate with efforts by a number of countries to question Henry Kissinger regarding various international crimes is merely the latest manifestation of such obstructionism.
This is not to suggest that if we could get the American house in order, the world would be fine. As Power's book shows, there are plenty of "evildoers" to go around. Something must be done to stop them, yes, but it should be a truly international project. The best place to start is at home, but not by first and foremost asking Washington to intercede abroad. Demanding a US foreign policy consistent with international law and human rights standards, as well as international accountability for American officials who may have engaged in war crimes and crimes against humanity, is the first step. Doing so will also increase the likelihood of international cooperation in cases championed by Washington.
Finally, it is not obvious why mass killing that falls under the rubric of genocide should be paramount in terms of international prevention and adjudication. Power does not claim this explicitly, but it is a fair conclusion to draw given that she does not discuss other terrible crimes against humanity that result in massive loss of life. Why, for example, should Serbian crimes in Bosnia be more worthy of scrutiny and demands for accountability than, say, the US war against Vietnam, which caused the deaths of 2-3 million civilians? In this regard, we must be careful that the need to suppress and seek justice for genocide does not prevent us from seeing all mass killings of civilians, no matter who commits them, as unacceptable, and from acting accordingly.
"The original inspiration for The New Intifada," explains Roane Carey in his foreword to this volume, "arose out of disgust at the mainstream media's consistent misrepresentation of the basic facts of this uprising." To "correct the balance," Carey, The Nation's copy chief, assembled an impressive array of essays for this collection, which aims to illuminate the myriad failings of the Oslo Agreements, describe the struggles of the current peace movement, deconstruct the media coverage of the Middle East and reveal the experiences of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation before and during this new intifada.
Palestinians, Israelis, Americans and others ("voices rarely tolerated in the US media") have contributed to this volume; some are well-known, like Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and Robert Fisk, while others are less so, though no less important. Harvard research associate Sara Roy writes about the Palestinian economy, which, compared with those of other states in the region, is weaker now than it was in 1967. Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif shares a diary of her first visit to Israel, a place she never intended to go: "My life," she writes, "like the life of every Egyptian of my generation, has been overcast by the shadow of Israel." Photographs separate the sections of The New Intifada, and give a sense of the devastated landscape and people this book brings to light.
In an essay from 2000 reprinted here, Said asks, "Why is it that more Israelis do not realize--as some already have--that a policy of brutality against Arabs in a part of the world containing 300 million Arabs and 1.2 billion Muslims will not make the Jewish state more secure?" Despite the efforts of Carey, his contributors and others, a year and a half later, the question still stands.
"History," wrote James Baldwin, "does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do." Citing this as a starting point, historian and Nation editorial board member Eric Foner goes on to note, "There is nothing unusual or sinister in the fact that each generation rewrites history to suit its own needs, or about disagreements within the profession and among the public at large about how history should best be taught and studied." He assembles a set of essays primarily taken from events in his life over the past decade--it's a personal book in this regard--including accounts of his experience in two societies grappling with deep historical change, Russia and South Africa. All investigate the relationship between the historian and his or her world. Since much of Foner's own work has centered around Reconstruction, many of the essays broach that subject and the effects on race relations to this day (he takes on Civil War documentarian Ken Burns and the cult of nostalgia in this context).
Overall, much of Who Owns History? stands as an argument for public engagement, and touches on issues such as globalization, social reconciliation and national identity. "'American' is what philosophers call an 'essentially contested concept,'" Foner observes, and he cautions in his chapter on "American Freedom in a Global Age" that, in the shadow of the Reagan revolution, "the dominant constellation of definitions seems to consist of a series of negations--of government, of social responsibility, of a common public culture," amid the tightening web of economic and cultural ties termed "globalization." Foner says that "the relationship between globalization and freedom may be the most pressing political and social problem of the twenty-first century."
Devotees of "balanced," "objective," "fair" and "evenhanded" nonfiction--well, they be hurtin' in these early days of the twenty-first century. Enough, perhaps, to demand that self-help, how-to and "wisdom of menopause" books return to dominate, as they once did, the now separated-from-birth (and diet and crosswords) New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. In the April 21 issue of the Sunday New York Times Book Review, nearly half the top ten nonfiction bestsellers belong to a genre that middle-of-the-road innocents might label "one-sided," "unbalanced," "exclusionary" or worse, though the Times's blurbs artfully avoid the issue.
Michael Moore's Stupid White Men, which manages the non-Euclidean trick of being centrifugally one-sided, denounces us as a racist, sexist "nation of idiots" even though we're plainly not a nation of idiots. Whether you love Moore for blasting the "Thief-in-Chief" or adore him for bashing Clinton and paying dues to the NRA, he's still guilty, as Ben Fritz's stiletto review in Salon demonstrated, of being "One Moore Stupid White Man," because "Moore gets his facts wrong again and again, and a simple check of the sources he cites shows that lazy research is often to blame."
David Brock's Blinded by the Right castigates the conservative movement, which Brock recently fled, as "a radical cult" bored by ideas and committed to a "Big Lie machine that flourished in book publishing, on talk radio and on the Internet through the '90s." Brock insists on that even though many conservatives believe in right-wing principles as honestly as leftists and liberals believe in theirs. While it was lauded by Frank Rich as "a key document," by Todd Gitlin as a book that "rings with plausibility" and in these pages by Michael Tomasky as essential to understanding this "fevered era," its credibility on the left seems largely based on Brock's hawking a story the left wants to hear, just as the right thrilled to The Real Anita Hill: that a "convulsed emotional state," as Tomasky construes it, rather than an ideology, "is the real binding glue among the right." Despite Brock's repeated acknowledgments that he's been an unscrupulous, self-serving liar throughout his life, flatterers of his book give little credit to the possibility voiced by Slate's Timothy Noah that lying may be "a lifelong habit" for the author. Bernard Goldberg's Bias, in turn, offers mirror-image goods to true believers on the right: chapter and verse on how his old employer, CBS News, and the media in general, "distort the news" in a liberal direction, even though the media, by and large, do not distort the news--they report it. On the strength of one purported conversation with CBS News president Andrew Heyward, however, and his own epiphanic experience after writing an anti-CBS Op-Ed for the Wall Street Journal, Goldberg sounds certain that he's packing smoking guns. No matter that he fails to clarify, in case after case, how "bias" differs from a presumptive judgment held on the basis of revisable evidence, or why conservative bias poses no problem within eclectic media.
Finally, Kenneth Timmerman's Shakedown, another targeted killing by the only national publishing house with the reflexes of a helicopter gunship, leaves Jesse Jackson barely breathing as a political player. But if fairness ruled the world of book manuscripts, this one would have swelled to far more than 512 pages. Because while Rod Dreher of The National Review complimented the author for "collecting the dossier on Jackson between two covers," a dossier in court or an academic department typically contains both good and bad. The Washington Post's Keith Richburg, crediting Timmerman's "meticulous research," rightly noted that the author also wholly ignores "Jackson's accomplishments," like his registration of millions of new voters.
So is Moore a direct literary descendant of Adolf Hitler, that over-the-top idea man whose snarly diatribes grabbed Publishers Weekly's number-seven bestseller slot for 1939? Will self-confessed "right-wing hit man" Brock--political sex-change operation or not--be remembered as an heir to the legacy of Barry (Conscience of a Conservative) Goldwater? Should Timmerman, whose Shakedown batters Jesse so badly his reproductive equipment may never recover, be considered just another scion of Victor Lasky, whose ferociously critical attack on John F. Kennedy awkwardly arrived in 1963? And what of Goldberg, our redemption-minded spy who came in from the ill-told? Will his Bias someday be taught in the Columbia publishing course alongside that 1923 bestseller, Emile Coué's Self-Mastery Through Conscious Auto-Suggestion, whose system apparently involved repeating to oneself, "Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better"?
Yes, Flannery O'Connor was right: "There's many a best-seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher." Each of these polemics keeps rolling as a big commercial success for its publisher, even though, by any standard of evenhandedness, each practices the big lie by what it omits. Are they skyrocketing hits because they're tantamount to "big lies," texts unwilling to address contrary views?
Maybe we've entered an era in which publishers and readers no longer care about two hands working at complementary tasks--about evidence and counterevidence, arguments and counterarguments, decency toward subject matter. One way to interpret the ascent of the Feckless Four is to accept that literary producers and consumers think we should leave all that to college debating societies, scholarly journals and books, newspapers of record and the courts. That's truth territory--this is entertainment. And could that actually be the crux of the putative trend? The recognition, by publishers, buyers and canny trade authors alike, that well-balanced, evenhanded, scrupulously fair nonfiction books bore the hell out of readers, however many prizes they may win?
Perhaps, in other words, the rise of the polemic is not simply a passing curiosity, a reaction to political correctness cutting both ways in 2002 America, but a stage of evolutionary development in a post- eternal verities culture. Educated readers--whether right or left--hunger for books that simply smash the opposition and make one feel the only sensation sweeter than orgasm: the sense of being utterly, unimpeachably right. To update an old saw by publisher William Targ, too many people who have half a mind to write a nonfiction bestseller do so, and that's roughly the amount of brainpower the reader desires.
It certainly feels as if we're facing an epiphenomenon of the moment, an upshot of the electorate we saw polarized on that red and blue 2000 electoral map. And yet, over the decades one spots many precursors of Moore, Brock, Goldberg and Timmerman (a crackerjack adversarial firm that might cost hundreds per hour if journalists billed like lawyers). Michael Korda's recent Making the List: A Cultural History of the American Bestseller, 1900-99 (Barnes & Noble), suggests that curators of American bestseller lists could have put up the neon Onesided Books 'R' Us sign long ago. Diet books, medical guides, how-tos and self-improvement schemes, after all, ritually command readers to do it this way, not that way. Dale Carnegie made it to the list with How to Win Friends and Influence People, not How to Win Friends, Influence People and Also Estrange a Ton of Other Folks. Books by political candidates advancing their platforms may not sizzle with Moore's streety phrases or Brock's inside snitching, but they slant the truth just the same. Similarly, the titles of leading bestsellers of the 1930s--Ernest Dimnet's What We Live By, Walter Pitkin's Life Begins at Forty and Walter Duranty's I Write as I Please--suggest unshakable points of view promised and delivered. Even in that war-dominated decade, one sees the forerunners of today's divided left/right list, with Mission to Moscow, which offered, Korda writes, a "benevolent view of Joseph Stalin," coming in second on the 1942 bestseller list, while John Roy Carlson's Under Cover, "an expose of subversive activity in the United States," rose to number one in 1943. Yet, Korda observes, while Americans favor books that "explain to them what is happening," they "still want to be amused, entertained, and improved." So when authors like Moore, Brock, Goldberg and Timmerman bring added assets to their unbalanced texts--Moore's over-the-line wit, Brock's salacious gossip, Goldberg's hate-the-media vibes and Timmerman's avalanche of dirt--it's like attaching an extra rocket to the binding.
The presence of one-sided books on bestseller lists, in short, is no fleeting phenomenon. It's a tradition. But might their increase threaten the culture? Not likely. Here an insight from Korda fuses with a larger appreciation of how philosophy in the broadest sense--the way we organize what we know into views that hang together--operates in American culture.
Korda extrapolates from bestseller history that "American readers have been, since the 1940s, increasingly willing to be challenged and even attacked. They might not have been eager to accept these challenges in person...but they were willing to buy and read books that criticized the status quo." He cites fiction as well Laura Hobson's novel Gentleman's Agreement (1947), with its critique of anti-Semitism, and Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955), which eviscerated the "white upper-middle-class lifestyle." It's equally true that American bestsellers from the beginning sometimes set themselves against a prevailing yet vulnerableview. Tom Paine's Common Sense took off and became common sense after he insulted George III and monarchy the way Moore zaps George the Second, and, well, monarchy.
Korda's insight jibes with a larger truth. Our growing readiness not only to tolerate but to prefer lopsided views of things arises from our gut-level understanding that America, at the dawn of the twenty-first century--and contrary to its clichéd cultural image--stands as the most vibrant philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth, argument, evidence and individuated positions on sale to any browser with a browser. Anyone with a pulse and a laptop can access material supporting the right, the left, the up, the down, the Israeli view, the Arab view, the Zoroastrian, the pagan, the poly, the foundationalist, the nonfoundationalist, the libertine, the puritanical, the environmental, the deconstructionist, the Lacanian, ad infinitum. That reservoir of opinions, attitudes and slants lifts our tolerance for one-sidedness into an appetite for edifying entertainment. Because we can order or click our way to the other side of almost any viewpoint, and can get it wholesale or retail, we forgive omissions. In our cornucopia culture, only diners have to offer everything.
TV executives, of course, knew from early on that brash, partisan talk-show hosts would outrate scholarly balancers every time. (The talk show, from Alan Burke and Joe Pyne to Bill O'Reilly, has mainly been an exercise in getting someone to scream uncle.) So, in turn, canny commercial publishers know that supplying "the other hand" can safely be left to the equally one-sided polemicist around the corner, or to the culture at large (particularly if the status quo is the "position" omitted). The nonfiction polemic, like provocative theater, demands an interactive audience member who'll supply or obtain elsewhere whatever's missing, up to the level of individual need. The upshot of rampant American pluralism, if not neatly packaged truth or beauty in marketable texts, is an unburdening of public intellectuals and trade authors from the academic obligation to be fair, judicious and open-minded. Like artists, they're simply expected to arouse.
It's an unholy system, all right. A typically American market solution to our supposedly innate demand for equity in the pursuit of knowledge. But it's ours. And the big bucks it produces for paperback and foreign rights? Don't even ask.
Is this it? The end of the Oprah Book Club as we know it?
It's Thursday, April 4, at approximately 3:45 pm. In less than twenty-four hours, virtually everyone in America will have received word of Oprah Winfrey's abrupt decision to cancel her televised book club, but now, as member
number 251 in a select studio audience of about 300, I find myself privy to this news before it has broken over the general populace. It is with no small sense of irony that I find myself here at this unforeseeably historic taping. For one thing, I don't even own a TV and have had little direct exposure to The Oprah Winfrey Show up until this moment. For another, I'm here not because I'm a fan but because I'm hurrying to finish my lengthy English thesis on the impact of the Oprah Book Club on American literary culture. In fact, my very arrival here at Harpo Studios played out something like a game of six degrees of separation, starting during a thesis-writing seminar last fall when a friend and fellow student mentioned that her mother's cousin's friend knew Oprah's makeup artist, and would I like help getting tickets.
Now--countless e-mails, multiple phone calls and several months later--I have come to Chicago's West Loop from Washington this very morning expecting to receive a typical and formulaic book-club-segment experience. I plan to take a few notes, write a nice, anecdotal first-person account of the whole thing upon my return home and be done with it. Still, along with every other polite, neatly dressed guest present, I gasp with pure, unstaged shock when, immediately after returning from a commercial break, Winfrey stands up and declares, "I just want to say that this is the end of the book club as we know it."
I sit stunned in my seat listening to the rest of her official statement that will air during her regularly scheduled program on Friday, the statement in which she explains before the cameras that "the truth is, it has just become harder and harder for me to find books on a monthly basis that I am really passionate about." I hear from Winfrey--as will anyone else who watches the show, listens to the soundbites or reads the papers--that "I have to read a lot of books to get to something that I really passionately love, so I don't know when the next book will be. It might be next fall or it could be next year. But I have saved one of the best for last. It's one of my all-time favorites, and we'll be discussing this selection as usual in about a month. So my final selection is Sula. Sula, by my favorite author, Toni Morrison." Unlike most other people who will hear this quote bandied about the press for weeks to come, from my position, dead-center in the third row, I have the advantage of hearing those parts of Winfrey's explanation that will not make the TV edit.
I hear her say during one of the final commercial breaks that six years' worth of book club has been long enough for her, that having to read so many contemporary novels with an eye toward picking one for the show is just too much pressure in conjunction with everything else she has to do, and that she wants to take time now to return to the classics. I hear her say that she spent the previous weekend rereading The Great Gatsby, a title to which the audience responds appreciatively with knowing oohs, ahhs and nods.
Back on the air again at a few minutes before 4 o'clock, an assortment of staffers pass out copies, both hardcover and paperback, of the final selection. Winfrey reminds all of us in the audience and, of course, everyone watching at home, "After you read it, write me a nice letter. A great Toni Morrison-worthy letter, OK, because in the end she's going to see your letters too," before laughing, thanking us and plunging into the well-mannered crowd herself to help with the distribution of books. The cameras are rolling as I receive my copy of Sula straight from Winfrey's hand; I could reach up and touch the sleeve of her fuzzy, pale blue sweater or the crease of her tailored gray trousers were I so inclined. By slightly after 4 , the show is over. The books have all been handed out, but Winfrey sticks around, as is her habit, to chat with the audience after hours. It is during this unaired window of time that Winfrey's fans have the opportunity to tell their heroine what's on their minds. It is during this time, too, that I witness the saddest part of my in-studio experience, sadder even than Winfrey's initial announcement, sadder because it is heartfelt and wholly unorchestrated.
Rising before posing her question, as we were instructed to do at the beginning of the taping, a well-spoken middle-aged woman in a periwinkle blue shirt addresses Winfrey. I do not catch her name because she is speaking quickly and earnestly, and I couldn't record it anyway because writing materials are not allowed. I do catch that she is a former English teacher, a current mother and homemaker, and a longtime fan of the Oprah Book Club. As such, she thanks Winfrey for having done so much for reading and literature. Then, standing unselfconsciously in front of us all, she pleads with Winfrey not to stop now. Recalling Winfrey's rereading of The Great Gatsby and desire to return to the works of dead authors, she wonders if it might be possible to continue to include literature in the show's format by, say, hosting a themed dinner, throwing a Roaring Twenties party or inviting a Fitzgerald professor to say a few words about the works of F. Scott. There's something strange and desperate and true in her plea, and I want so badly for Winfrey to assent. Instead, Winfrey explains that she just wants to be a "normal reader" for a while, and that although she and her staff certainly considered such alternatives, the likelihood that any of them could ever take place is slim. She does not want, she says laughing, to have to read and select classic novels on the basis of their potential for an accompanying dinner. By a quarter after 4, the discussion turns from the announcement entirely. At approximately 4:30, Winfrey announces that she must take her leave. Without another word about the cancellation of the club, she's gone.
Filing from my section to the studio exit, I can't help considering that this unexpected last chapter in the story of the Oprah Book Club is not dissimilar to the kind of secret or surprise divulged in a number of the novels that were her book club picks. Unlike the best of the Oprah selections, though, this story seems to have a highly unsatisfying conclusion. Nonetheless, it is done, and it seems a shame that the club was never discussed as the rich cultural phenomenon that it really was, but rather, as is typical of so much contemporary cultural commentary, almost exclusively in terms of commerce. In fairness, each and every one of Winfrey's forty-eight selections over the past six years became a bestseller, and in an industry in which only a few novels sell more than 30,000 copies, the fact that those recommended by Winfrey routinely sold a million or more secures the club's status as an undeniable economic marvel.
Still, even when the opportunity for broad-based exploration of the club arose, as in the case of last fall's dust-up with Jonathan Franzen, reductive high-versus-low cultural bickering seemed the only result. Now that the club is over, perhaps we can examine the story of the Oprah Book Club with the care we would devote to the analysis of any complete story.
More than anything else, we'll find that the club was not just extremely significant, hopeful and positive as a development but was actually a revolutionary cultural event. The use of such a far-reaching television program--The Oprah Winfrey Show charts a domestic audience of an estimated 26 million viewers per week, plus a foreign distribution in 106 countries ranging from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe--as a deliberate means to such a flourishing literary end was unheard-of before Winfrey. More than any other cultural authority, Winfrey made an almost subversive use of television, a categorically "low" medium, to bridge the high-low cultural chasm that cleaves the American literary landscape. Thus, Winfrey fought the good fight for literature in America by promoting an enormous and active readership, racking up her victories--succeeding with grace and ease in the creation of new readers where the book industry itself had failed. Indeed, her widely inclusive televised discussion of books had millions of people reading within the club and outside it. Typically, by the time a book club segment appeared, more than 500,000 people had read at least part of the novel and nearly as many would buy the book in ensuing weeks. Moreover, the club resulted in people reading titles other than those featured on the show. According to Bob Weitrach, director of merchandise at Barnes & Noble, 75 percent of the people who bought a book club title bought something else too. And even though there are some who would say--and who did say--that the revolution should not have been televised, they were, quite simply and sadly, wrong, and now we're seeing the cost of their snide, misguided complaints.
Whatever else can be said about the Oprah Book Club--that it superficially treated fictional works as Things That Really Happen; that the narratives of the books themselves were flattened by the pandering, shallow narrative of the television program; that it drew an inordinate amount of attention to the personalities of the authors--the reality that it offered or came close to offering a third way of sorts between America's high and low cultural literary camps cannot be denied. By providing substantial evidence that such arbitrary and binaristic classifications as high and low may actually have the same limits, boundaries and scope, the Oprah Book Club presented a way to begin healing the senseless rift in American literary culture.
Paradoxically, within Oprah's success rested the very problem so many people had with the book club, and that led to its untimely demise. For as Richard Lacayo noted in Time, "Culture snobs who thought of her as that mawkish woman who was always on a diet now think of her as that mawkish woman on a diet who has got millions of people to read Toni Morrison." In short, even though Winfrey's position as a major arbiter of literary taste was undoubtedly established, her right to hold that position in the first place was subject to a great deal of unabashed public doubt. As C. Wright Mills observed, virtually all taste is dictated, if not by recognized cultural authorities at the so-called top, then from somewhere. All reviewing of or advocacy for a particular book--whether it appears on the book's jacket, in The New York Times Book Review or wherever else--may be construed as suggestion or even a subtle form of coercion from those in positions of cultural superiority to those at lower levels. Worthy of note, too, is the fact that most people seem fairly comfortable with this long-established tradition of how we, the public, are told how and what to read by various powers that be, many of whom are perceived as members of some kind of specialized literary class.
A reasonable question, then, becomes why widespread signs of discomfort surfaced only when said power manifested itself in the form of a middle-aged black woman and, more precisely, a middle-aged black woman with lots and lots of money (her net worth is estimated at $425 million). For even though Winfrey picked a multitude of critically acclaimed books (including Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize-winning Song of Solomon and Jane Hamilton's PEN/Hemingway-winning The Book of Ruth), her picks still managed to be subject to critical scorn once they had received her approbation. In short, Winfrey books exhibited an inversely proportional relationship between their cultural capital--low--and their economic capital--high. The critical backlash against the selections of the club presented unfortunate proof of how caught up in a kind of textbook hierarchy of legitimacy American literary culture really is.
Indeed, in large part because Winfrey selected titles with an eye toward both their literary merits and their ability to go over well with an audience consisting chiefly of women between the ages of 18 and 54--which women, incidentally, purchase and read more than 70 percent of the fiction sold in this country--the club was perceived as an easy target, open to countless cheap shots. I'm not suggesting here that all the Winfrey-selected books of the past six years--thirty-five of them by women and thirteen of them by men--were brilliant, nor that there should be no distinction drawn between top- and poor-quality literature. What I am suggesting, having read the majority of the novels myself, is that Winfrey's picks proved that readable literature is not by definition unchallenging or unworthy of both popular acclaim and critical respect. Put another way, for every stray inferior club pick, like The Pilot's Wife, there were multiple superior club picks, like The Poisonwood Bible. Moreover, Winfrey continued to move the club in increasingly challenging directions right up to the bitter end, picking such serious and demanding works as Rohinton Mistry's A Fine Balance and Franzen's The Corrections. The disinvitation fiasco--wherein Franzen insulted Winfrey and she, in turn, canceled his appearance on the show--could have served as a tremendous asset to the club, the literary community and the country. Instead, it became a liability, a disheartening battle of egos between its figureheads and led to attendant galvanization along the lines of high culture versus low among the population at large. Owing in no small part to this highly publicized challenge to her cultural authority, Winfrey seems to have come now to the conclusion that the club is just no longer worth it if it means being exposed to such derision.
None of this alters the fact that while it lasted, the club was an unquestionably encouraging phenomenon, indicative of an American impulse toward intellectual self-improvement and a hunger for the kind of seriousness and stimulation that good literary fiction can offer. Such a story as that of the Oprah Book Club should not suffer from so weak an ending. The closing of the book before a satisfactory denouement represents a tremendous loss to the promotion of active readership.
In 1851, when the 32-year-old Herman Melville published his masterpiece Moby-Dick, he was already known as a man who'd consorted with cannibals. His first book, Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life (1846), was an international sensation. A fictional travelogue based on his adventures, some of them sex-
ual, in the Marquesas Islands, it offended genteel Christians and sold pretty well, so Melville dipped into his escapades again for Omoo (1847), more tales from the South Seas, and the career of Herman Melville, swashbuckling author, was launched.
The young salt then married Boston Brahmin Elizabeth Shaw, the daughter of Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. Actually, the scandalous Melville was something of a Brahmin himself. Grandson of the Revolutionary War hero Gen. Peter Gansevoort, and of Maj. Thomas Melvill, a hero of the Boston Tea Party, Melville was also related to the Van Rensselaers of Albany, the New York State Dutch equivalent of Boston blue blood.
Now a bona fide writer, Melville published another, more complex romance of Polynesian adventure, Mardi (1849), not nearly as popular as his first two, and the autobiographical Redburn (1849), followed by a story of seamen, White-Jacket (1850): five novels in a manic four years.
The scene is set. Melville is "the first American literary sex symbol," writes Hershel Parker in Herman Melville, A Biography, Volume 2, 1851-1891. From then on, Melville has to deal with a public that typecasts its authors: Melville is a sailor who writes, not a writer who sailed. He also must live down a reputation for writing too fast and, as his novels grow less popular, shoulder an ever-enlarging specter of mortgaged debt, neither of which would be easy for anyone, least of all the man whose own improvident father, the importer Allan Melvill, had squandered the family fortune, such as it had become, as well as his sanity and his patrimony, dying when Herman was only 12.
Yanked out of school, the young Melville (as the name was spelled after Allan's death) then clerked in a bank for $150 a year; he also worked in his elder brother's store, ran an uncle's farm, taught school and in 1839 set out to sea in a merchant ship bound for Liverpool. "Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul," says Ishmael in Moby-Dick, "then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball." In 1841 Melville signed on to the whaler Acushnet, jumped ship and met his tribe of cannibals.
All this is copiously documented in the 941 pages of Parker's Herman Melville: A Biography, Volume 1, 1819-1851 (1996), which ends when Melville, living in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, presents to his Berkshire neighbor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, a copy of the newly minted Moby-Dick, containing that singular act of literary generosity, its printed dedication to Hawthorne "in token of my admiration for his genius."
In fact, Parker's fine sleuthing turned up a newspaper article, printed in the 1852 Windsor, Vermont, Journal, that recounts Melville meeting Hawthorne for dinner at a hotel in Lenox, Massachusetts, conveniently situated between Pittsfield and the small house the Hawthornes were occupying on the border of what today is known as Tanglewood. And on the basis of this gossip column, Parker speculates that the dinner took place circa November 14 and that as the two friends lingered, alone in the dining room, Melville handed Moby-Dick to Hawthorne. ("In no other way could Hawthorne have had a copy so soon," Parker explains.)
As Hawthorne held Moby-Dick in his hand, "he could open the book in his nervous way (more nervous even than normally)," writes Parker, "and get from his friend a guided tour of the organization of the thing now in print, and even sample a few paragraphs that caught his eye or that the author eagerly pointed out to him." He could indeed. Whether he did is another matter, though not for Parker, as secure in his fantasy as Edmund Morris is in his imaginary Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan. "Take it all in all," Parker concludes, "this was the happiest day of Melville's life."
This reconstructed dinner purports to have happened because Parker, a mighty researcher, has loaded his book with enough fact, detail and circumstantial inference to oblige assent from a weary reader. Yet despite the hulking material he's amassed from a mountain of newspapers, a fairly new cache of family papers and a host of collateral letters, to name just a few of his sources, Parker continually veers into unwonted speculation that then careens into certainty, moving back and forth between data and guesswork, seamlessly fusing the two and squandering his credibility as biographer along the way. The happy dinner is a jarring case in point--and surprising in the work of a scholar as seemingly scrupulous as Parker, the associate general editor of the Northwestern-Newberry edition of The Writings of Herman Melville.
Yet the happy dinner is essential to Herman Melville, A Biography, Volume 2, 1851-1891, another prodigious undertaking, 997 pages, that chronicles the second, sad half of Melville's life. Here, Parker focuses on Melville's relationship to Hawthorne. But it's one of his book's more contradictory themes, since Parker is irritated by the pairing. Neighbors only for eighteen months, the two authors afterward saw one another about three more times but in the nineteenth-century eye were yoked forevermore, Melville in the background and remembered, "if remembered at all," snaps Parker, "as a man who had known Hawthorne, the literary man who had known Hawthorne during the Lenox months."
Of course, Parker isn't the first biographer implicitly to lay the blame for Melville's neglect at Hawthorne's feet. Laurie Robertson-Lorant, whose earnest Melville: A Biography appeared the same year as the first installment of Parker's biography, doesn't much like Hawthorne. Though Hawthorne appreciated Moby-Dick, he took Melville literally when he said not to write about it, and Robertson-Lorant never forgave him, particularly since Moby-Dick met with uncomprehending reviewers who called it "careless," "patchy," "dazzling" and "absurd." Sales were predictably bad.
Worse yet, in 1852 Melville published Pierre, or, The Ambiguities, an undomestic novel about incest and authorship (the two symbolically related), which also contained a coruscating sendup of writers and editors. They were not amused. Herman Melville Crazy ran a headline in one New York paper. Enter Parker, who reasonably argues that Melville's screed against publishers was a wanton act of self-destruction (or hubris) and then less reasonably suggests that Melville "may have sensed what would become a recurrent phenomenon for the rest of his life, that he was being eclipsed by Hawthorne." This is Parker speaking, not Melville. Despite Melville's capaciousness, Parker is convinced that envy preoccupies Melville, though the evidence suggests Parker is the envious one, so riled is he by Hawthorne's posthumous reputation and Melville's sinking one. Parker closely identifies with Melville, at times too closely, and will cross swords with anyone who ignored, outsold, criticized or just plain didn't like Melville.
But alas, Melville was in fact forgotten in America until his own posthumous revival in the 1920s, especially in Britain, when, Parker declares more than once, Moby-Dick and sometimes Pierre take their place in a literary pantheon that does not include the establishment writer (according to Parker) Hawthorne. "Not one of all these British admirers ever asked Melville what it had been like to be a friend of Hawthorne," Parker writes near the end of his book. "They understood that Hawthorne, like Longfellow, was immensely popular but not of the same order of literary greatness as Melville and Whitman." Take that, you American fools.
The question of Hawthorne's immense popularity aside--the truth is, he couldn't earn a living as a writer--Melville's treatment by a boorish America obsessed with commonplace prosperity is another of Parker's themes, and he strews his biography with the silly statements of vapid critics like Melville's friend Evert Duyckinck, whom he also holds responsible for Melville's eclipse. The trouble here isn't that Parker is wrong but that his target--American stupidity--is too wide a mark. Americans can be stupid, to be sure, and Melville's gifts are staggering, but so is his tendency for self-subversion; his almost vicious search for meaning--"if man will strike, strike through the mask!"--ends with his pervasive, magniloquent sense that nothing will avail. This makes him a complex, fascinating man and genius of heartbreaking proportion. "Ourselves are Fate," he wrote in White-Jacket.
After Pierre, Melville presumably wrote another book from a story he'd heard, while vacationing in Nantucket, about Agatha Hatch, the abandoned wife of a bigamist sailor. According to Parker, who expertly excavated information about the lost manuscript, including its title ("The Isle of the Cross"), Melville finished this book, which his publisher, Harper's, was prevented from printing for some unknown reason. (Parker thinks the Harper brothers feared a suit from survivors of Agatha Hatch, should they have recognized themselves, although he concludes that the prospect is unlikely.)
Parker nicely points out that "The Isle of the Cross" is the missing link between Pierre and Melville's subsequent magazine tales, including the brilliant story "Bartleby, the Scrivener," an inquiry into moral accountability and the fecklessness of social norms. It was collected in a volume of stories, The Piazza Tales (1856), which also includes the great "Benito Cereno," about an insurrection aboard a slave ship that turns shallow parlor values upside down, and "The Encantadas," sketches that Melville may have purloined from a longer, unpublished manuscript of his about tortoises, whose crowning curse, Melville writes, "is their drudging impulse to straightforwardness in a belittered world." This is pure Melville: philosophical, rueful, ironic, bold. He also serialized a historical novel, Israel Potter, in Putnam's Monthly Magazine, in which he forecast, argues Parker, the ultimate loss of his own career. But he didn't stop writing.
Now the father of four (two boys and two girls), Melville had already begun the satiric Confidence-Man (1857) when his health collapsed, likely under the weight of depression and heavy debt. Loans due, he had to sell off eighty acres to save his farm from seizure by a creditor; humiliated, he borrowed $5,000 from his father-in-law, who'd already contributed $5,000 to family coffers. A kind man where Melville was concerned (though he cut an equivocal place in history by enforcing the Fugitive Slave Act), Judge Shaw dispatched the ailing Melville to Rome, Egypt and the Levant, where Melville had long wanted to go, hoping to find among the hieroglyphics tidings to quiet his uneasy soul.
He traveled by way of Liverpool, where Hawthorne, stationed as American consul, briefly entertained him. "He certainly is much overshadowed since I saw him last," Hawthorne observed, noting Melville's strange comment that he'd
"pretty much made up his mind to be annihilated"; but still he does not seem to rest in that anticipation; and, I think, will never rest until he gets hold of a definite belief. It is strange how he persists--and has persisted ever since I knew him, and probably long before--in wandering to and fro over these deserts, as dismal and monotonous as the sand hills amid which we were sitting. He can neither believe, nor be comfortable in his unbelief; and he is too honest and courageous not to try to do one or the other.
Melville never received a more searching analysis.
As Hawthorne surmised, Melville would not find what he sought in the vastness of the Pyramids, and after returning to America, he beached his pen to earn a scant living on the lecture circuit, his audiences complaining that his whiskers muffled his words. A platform fiasco, he took off again, intending to circumnavigate the globe, but when he disembarked in San Francisco and learned that publishers had rejected a new manuscript, he returned home, defeated and miserable. His works falling out of print, he solaced himself in long walks around New York City after he and his family moved there in 1863, and eventually landed a dry-dock job as a Custom House inspector.
Oddly, the unsold manuscript was a book of poems. Why write poetry? Given the prestige of poetry in the nineteenth century, it's not a question, says Parker, Melville would have thought to ask. But that's no answer. The man was chronically depressed, debt-ridden and rightly fed up with publishers and readers; yet write poetry he did, perhaps seeking something unavailable to the novel, especially during wartime. The trenchant Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866) contains such poems as "The House-top," Melville's reflection on the 1863 draft riots, and his ironic depiction of Sherman's "March to the Sea." Parker favors Melville's allusive, ambitious epic, "Clarel: A Poem and a Pilgrimage in the Holy Land" (1876), though the jury's still out on that. I myself would like to be convinced, but Parker prefers to tease out the poem's hypothetical references to Hawthorne rather than traffic in enormities, poetic or otherwise.
Similarly, Parker gives remarkably short shrift to the tragic death of Malcolm, Melville's firstborn, killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound at 18. Here, Parker should indulge his penchant for speculation: Why did Malcolm tuck his gun under his pillow each night? What was he trying to tell his father, with this pistol and ball? Did Melville hear him? And wouldn't it be safe to assume that Malcolm's ghost, not Hawthorne's, spooked Melville when he visited the Berkshire Hills in 1869, just before he began writing "Clarel"? Do littérateurs haunt only one another?
Likewise, Parker could dig deeper into allegations about Melville's abuse of his wife, which so upset her brothers they wanted to kidnap her and the children and hustle them back to Boston. Psychological abuse, Parker admits; but physical abuse? Throwing her down the stairs? Poet Charles Olson reportedly got the word from Melville's oldest granddaughter, and he's not a source a responsible biographer can put much faith in, says Parker, except that the claims are worth interpreting at least in terms of Melville's fascination with violence. The posthumously published tour de force Billy Budd, an inside narrative, as Melville terms it, tells of an innocent youth's murder: Malcolm? Melville's younger, more sexual self? The beleaguered Melville frequently did abandon his wife, whom he seemed to love, though he was clearly drawn to the company of men, either in fantasy or in the context of his work. (Edwin Miller, an unreliable biographer, imagines Melville propositioning Hawthorne in the Berkshire Hills and Hawthorne rejecting him: more grist for the anti-Hawthorne mill. On this subject, Newton Arvin remains the best, most elegant, Melville interpreter to date.)
Commendably cautious, Parker eschews reckless or fashionable theories about Melville's sexuality. Yet questions remain, skirted by Parker, as if his dizzying array of biographical detritus would prevent our posing them. Cramming his book with long, bloodless catalogues of what Melville might have seen or read, Parker layers each sentence with so much stuff he sacrifices drama, insight and even, on occasion, grammar. "Knowing Melville's sightseeing habits as detailed in his journals," Parker obfuscates, "chances are he saw all he could see, keeping a lookout for superb views." He then provides us with all these vistas, plus newspaper reports and tangential historical information, fudging the biographical imperative: to show how Melville transforms the shaggy minutiae of life and its myriad characters (whether Hawthorne, Malcolm, a besieged wife or a shipmate) into an alembic of wishes, conflicts and disappointments that, taken together, reflect him, a mysterious, roiling, poignant writer alive, painfully alive, in every phrase he wrote.
Still, Parker offers a sweeping history of the reviews Melville received, a comprehensive account of Melville's reading (ditto his literary sources), a jeremiad against mediocrity in American letters, all the characters in Melville's extended family, a record of his aching debt and a peevish defense of an artist who needs, as artist, no defense at all.
Grateful scholars will chew over this massive undertaking in years to come, as they should, saluting Parker for his devotion, solemnity and sheer stamina. As for Melville the man: As Ishmael presciently remarks in Moby-Dick, "I cannot completely make out his back parts; and hint what he will about his face, I say again he has no face."
Charles Wright and Charles Simic count among the best poets of their generation. Each career has unfolded with considerable excitement for serious readers of contemporary poetry, their latest work always building on previous work, always shifting in unexpected ways, challenging the reader to answer light with light, dark with dark. Their latest books are certainly as good, if not better, than those that preceded them, and that's saying a good deal.
In Wright's fifteenth volume, A Short History of the Shadow, he reaches back to earlier moments in his creative and spiritual life (which, in his case, are intimately connected), revisiting "old fires, old geographies," as he says in "Looking Around," which opens the volume. This and other poems in the collection resemble in form and texture those of his middle period, which began with The Other Side of the River, where the terse, imagistic lyrics of his earlier work gave way to long and languid meditations in the loose, associative format of a journal. As ever, Wright centered each poem in a particular landscape--Tennessee, Virginia, California, Italy--sometimes skipping blithely from landscape to landscape, season to season, assembling images that seemed miraculous in their originality and oddness. Ignoring the dogged domesticity that informs so much of contemporary poetry, he addressed large matters: the place of human intelligence in nature, the nature and role of memory and time in the life of the soul, the fate of language as a conduit between spirit and matter. Wright was, in a sense, adding apocryphal books to his own hermetic scripture with each poem.
He still is. Admitting to a "thirst for the divine" in "Lost Language," he catalogues his habits and desires:
I have a hankering for the dust-light, for all things illegible.
I want to settle myself
Where the river falls on hard rocks,
where no one can cross,
Where the star-shadowed, star-colored city lies, just out of reach.
A dark Emersonian, Wright reads the Book of Nature closely, consistently and fiercely, as in "Charlottesville Nocturne," where he concludes:
Leaning against the invisible, we bend and nod.
Evening arranges itself around the fallen leaves
Alphabetized across the back yard,
That braille us and sign us, leaning against the invisible.
Our dreams are luminous, a cast fire upon the world.
Morning arrives and that's it.
Sunlight darkens the earth.
Here as elsewhere, Wright fetches the reader's attention with compelling aphorisms, with phrases arranged to create a subtle, alluring music. He could not be mistaken for any other poet, although one notices the remnants of his reading, thoroughly absorbed and transmogrified, in almost every line. It's often amusing to hear him toying with phrases and linguistic motions from the poets who have influenced him: Whitman, Eliot, Stevens, Pound, Montale (whom he has translated) and others. When he says, for example, "I like it out here," in "Why, It's as Pretty as a Picture," one can't help hearing Stevens's similar remark in "The Motive for Metaphor." Of course, poems often unfold from poems, and most good literature is a tissue of allusions. Wright knows this; indeed, he embraces it.
There is evidence of wit everywhere in this volume, more so than before. Wright sounds immensely self-confident and authoritative and can say anything, as in the above-mentioned poem, which disarmingly opens:
A shallow thinker, I'm tuned
to the music of things,
The conversation of birds in the dusk-damaged trees,
The just-cut grass in its chalky moans,
The disputations of dogs, night traffic, I'm all ears
To all this and half again.
Tell me about it. Wright is all ears, all eyes, sifting the world that falls before him with astonishing freshness, thinking shallowly so he can see and hear profoundly. His poems, like all good poetry, embody their meanings well before they are available for rational understanding, and they are only understood in a full way over time, in the context of his previous work and, indeed, the work to come.
Though rooted in the traditions of European and American Romanticism, Wright has kept an eye on the East, and in the new poems he alludes easily and often to Chinese poets and philosophers, who embrace the concept of emptiness in ways that complement Wright's aesthetic, as he suggests in the gorgeous "Body and Soul II," where he presents another in his series of poems in the ars poetica mode:
Every true poem is a spark,
and aspires to the condition of
the original fire
Arising out of the emptiness.
It is that same emptiness it wants to reignite.
It is that same engendering it wants to be re-engendered by.
In "Body and Soul" itself, Wright embraces his aesthetic more ardently than anywhere in his previous writing, if I'm not mistaken. He writes:
I used to think the power of words was inexhaustible,
That how we said the world
was how it
was, and how it would be.
I used to imagine that word-sway and
Would silence the Silence and all that,
That words were the Word,
That language could lead us inexplicably
As though it were geographical.
I used to think these things when I
I still do.
Movingly, Wright places his confidence in the gnostic way of knowledge, in the appropriation of Logos through language itself, in "word-sway and word-thunder," a formulation that recalls Hopkins, who sought the divine in language, wherein he discovered an "inscape"--his term for a distinct internal form--that embodied the mystery of grace.
Wright is a seer in the truest sense, a poet who stands out among contemporary poets as a lone figure, belonging to no recognizable school, inimitable. His vatic stance, though unpretentious because the manner of the poet is often quite offhanded and colloquial, remains central to the meaning of his poetry, and he falls smack in the line of American visionaries, who look always to Emerson as the source.
Wright and Charles Simic could not be more different in style, even substance, though Simic's work shares with Wright's an abiding interest in the realm of spirit in its worldly embodiments. Simic, though, is more likely to find "the proof of God's existence riding in a red nightgown." Simic's interlocutor in the title poem of the new volume, Night Picnic, asserts: "All things are imbued with God's being--." This God, however, is a dark and possibly demonic figure, defined as much by his absence as his presence.
A bitterness over this absence appears to haunt Simic, here as before, although humor blends with the bitterness to create his unique affect. His poetry locates itself in casual moments of sudden recognition, as in "We All Have Our Hunches," which follows in its entirety:
The child turning from his mother's breast
With a frightened look
To watch his grandfather raise a beer
And drink to his future happiness
In the kitchen full of unwashed plates
And busy women with quarrelsome voices,
The oldest of whom wields a rolled newspaper
With the smiling President's picture
Already speckled by the blood
Of warm-weather flies and mosquitoes.
In the somewhat claustrophobic hothouse of this poem, a rather typical one, Simic contrasts young and old, powerful and powerless--oppositions that have intrigued him from the outset. The shadow of violence falls across the room, emblematized by the oldest "quarrelsome" woman with the rolled newspaper and amplified by the blood-speckled picture of the President. The reflexive fear of this child is a fear that permeates Simic's verse, which often trembles on the edge of despair.
Born in Belgrade in 1938, Simic's early childhood was spent in the turmoil of war. His first language was Serbo-Croatian, and he brings an Eastern European sensibility to his poems, a feeling of almost lightheaded absurdity coupled with a wryly sardonic feeling of helplessness. For close ancestors, one might look to poets like Georg Trakl or Zbigniew Herbert--poets at home in the eerie dreamworld of surreal poetry.
In the unnamed country where most of his poems are set, war seems to hover in the background. The authorities in this country rule by violence, and ordinary souls shrink into the crevices of history, destined for oblivion. The poet's voice in this almost speakerless poetry emerges from an anonymous Mouth, that "old rathole/From which the words/Scurry after dark." Typically, Simic's poems gather their disparate parts in unexpected ways, hinting at "dark secrets still to be unveiled," the pieces falling miraculously into place in the final image, where the reader is often led to a huge metaphysical brink, which beckons from below.
A prolific poet--by my count this volume is his fifteenth--Simic revisits similar nightmares in book after book. He dreams about butcher shops, ominous city streets, prisons and dismal bedrooms, where the insomniac poet studies the flies on the ceiling and contemplates his own dim fate. But there have always been some bucolic poems, too, and they are usually set in deep country, under blue skies, as in "Summer in the Country," which opens:
One shows me how to lie down in a field of clover.
Another how to slip my hand under her Sunday skirt.
Another how to kiss with a mouth full of blackberries.
Another how to catch fireflies in a jar after dark.
That we never learn who, exactly, these instructors are doesn't matter. In Simic's surreal world, anything can happen; guide-ghosts can unexpectedly materialize to lead the characters in the poem into heaven or hell--or some combination of the two.
I've always relished Simic in his wry but happy moods, as in "The Secret of the Yellow Room," where he celebrates sloth and the "silky hush of a summer afternoon." But the weather of any given poetic mood can shift unexpectedly. "Roadside Stand," for example, begins with a sumptuous account of a kid's roadside vegetable and fruit stand:
In the watermelon and corn season,
The earth is a paradise, the morning
Is a ripe plum or a plump tomato
We bite into as if it were the mouth of a lover.
The kid, however, is bored. He doesn't understand the peculiar enthusiasm of his customers, who make such a fuss over his produce; wanly if not wisely, he surmises that "what makes people happy is a mystery." The gears shift quietly under the hood of Simic's poem as it widens in meaning.
Though Simic rarely mentions a specific historical situation, he refers often--and chillingly--to politics. "Sunday Papers," a remarkable lyric, begins: "The butchery of the innocent/Never stops." "Views from a Train" offers the depressing sight of "squatters' shacks,/Naked children and lean dogs running/On what looked like a town dump." "In the Courtroom" laments a world of injustice, where "ghastly errors" occur and "mistaken identities are the rule." But Simic sees no easy remedy for these problems, which seem eternally to plague humankind. If poetry makes nothing happen, as Auden suggested, then a poet's nightmares can't help much. In "New Red Sneakers," Simic notes with rueful candor: "A lifetime of sleepless nights/Cannot alter the course of events."
The "Wee-hour world" of his writing is haunted by twisted faces, tinhorn preachers and a variety of indigents who cannot reinvent their lives or take comfort in philosophical musings. Even art doesn't help much. "The true master," suggests one voice in an eerie poem called "The Lives of the Alchemists," "needs a hundred years to perfect his art."
Simic has been working for more than four decades at his art, and he's brushed up against perfection more than a few times. Indeed, American poetry would be desperately poorer without at least a dozen of his poems, and the work in Night Picnic is as lively, horrific, amusing and satisfying as anything he has yet published.
NEW LIFE FOR DORMANT BOOKS
New York City
As a longtime admirer of André Schiffrin's publishing programs, I was disappointed by a conspicuous omission in his coverage of developments in the book industry ["The Eurocrush on Books," Dec. 31, 2001]. The single most significant technological development to affect publishing since, arguably, the paperback revolution is the maturing of print-on-demand technology. Print-on-demand publishing, when applied to deep backlist (i.e., older) books, means that publishers need not put a book out of print or overprint it by the hundreds or thousands. Presses can now simply meet demand as it arises, whether a single copy or a hundred. Print-on-demand technology renders the economies of scale that have so fettered publishers--particularly such publishers of serious nonfiction as university presses and Schiffrin's New Press--largely obsolete, to the advantage of all.
At Oxford University Press, we have breathed new life into literally thousands of dormant books, much to the delight of our authors and of readers and booksellers everywhere. We, and many other presses, both commercial and academic, are simply applying new technologies to do what we do best: publish good books and, now, with print-on-demand, keep them available ad infinitum.
Oxford University Press
Gee, it's heartening to see reviews of poetry by women, especially those working in an experimental vein [Eileen Myles, "Not Betsy Rosses," March 11]. I hope The Nation plans more coverage of the subversive issues that these poets explore: power, ideology and subjectivity at the levels of syntax of everyday language, (non)aestheticized ideas of composition and the disruption of, to paraphrase the poet Martha Ronk, the easy-to-digest, like breast milk or nostalgia--in effect, the Romantic project that has dominated US literary consciousness.
It may be useful to readers of Dodie Bellamy's Cunt-Ups to go beyond Myles's characterization of it as a book that "uses overtly sexual texts, her own and ones written by others" to turn to the author's statement in Issue 7 of Chain, the premiere literary journal of experimental poetry, where Bellamy wrote, "I used a variety of texts written by myself and others, including the police report of Jeffrey Dahmer's confession (which I bought on eBay).... I cut each page of this material into four squares. For each Cunt-Up I chose two or three squares from my own source text, and one or two from the other sources. I taped the new Frankenstein page together, typed it into my computer and then re-worked the material. Oddly, even though I've spent up to four hours on each Cunt-Up, afterwards I cannot recognize them--just like in sex, intense focus and then sensual amnesia. They enter the free zone of writing; they have cut their own ties to the writer. She no longer remembers them as her text." Then Bellamy asks provocatively: "Is the cut-up a male form? I've always considered it so--needing the violence of a pair of scissors in order to reach nonlinearity," and she devilishly continues by claiming that her finished poems remind her of Adrienne Rich's "Twenty-One Love Poems," which begin:
Whenever in this city, screens flicker
with pornography, with science-fiction vampires
and concludes by dedicating her Cunt-Ups to Rich and "to Kathy Acker, who I was reading when I started the project and who inspired me to behave this badly."
HIS PROSE IS POETRY
Taline Voskeritchian's fine review "Lines Beyond the Nakba" [Feb. 11] points out that there are almost no translations of Mahmoud Darwish's poetry in English but doesn't mention that Darwish's prose is also his poetry. I would like to recommend Memory for Forgetfulness/August, Beirut, 1982 to readers who wish to learn more about the blending of Darwish's prose, poetry and poetic sensibilities. In the introduction to his translation, Ibrahim Muhawi, following talks with the poet, points out that Darwish does not distinguish aesthetically between prose and poetry. This will become readily apparent while reading one of the world's great meditations on life in the face of death.
FANTASY THAT CAN'T BE FILMED
Hats off to The Nation and Meredith Tax for giving Ursula Le Guin her due ["In the Year of Harry Potter, Enter the Dragon," Jan. 28]. When Harry Potter failed to grab me, I wondered if I had a wizard allergy. To test the idea I turned to A Wizard of Earthsea. It delighted me, and it taught me that, as Tax notes, "style is key in fantasy." Tax's discussion of the literalness of most modern fantasy is right on target. Certainly "fantasy" films (e.g., Star Wars) have contributed to this hard-edged realism, with their need to fill every frame with concrete detail. Although I wish Le Guin riches in royalties, I like to think of her work as defying translation to film. Thanks for telling us about Tales From Earthsea. I plan to request it for my seventy-fifth birthday.
BARBARA M. WALKER
John Leonard's "The Jewish Cossack" [Nov. 26, 2001] is a truly wise and erudite review of Isaac Babel's life and work against the background of the epic nightmare of Russian literature in the twentieth century. However, when he mentions that Bruno Schultz was murdered about the same time as Isaac Babel, some may not be aware that Bruno Schultz, a Jew like Babel, who brought radical and fresh depth to the Polish language, was shot by the Nazis in a ghetto in eastern Poland. His death has to be properly assigned to the other murderous ideology of Europe.
As the author of Tangled Loyalties, a biography of Ilya Ehrenburg, I would like to clarify several aspects of the friendship John Leonard alludes to between Isaac Babel and Ehrenburg. After citing Ehrenburg's loving remarks about Babel in his memoirs, Leonard implies that Ehrenburg "wouldn't say so in public until it was safe," as if Ehrenburg would acknowledge his closeness to Babel only once Stalin was dead. But it was Ehrenburg, during the First Soviet Writers' Congress, in 1934, who defended Babel for publishing so little. In 1939, following Babel's arrest, only Ehrenburg's secretary came to Babel's Moscow wife, Antonina Pirozhkova, and gave her money.
Ehrenburg was in Paris when Babel was arrested, but he was not in Paris for convenience, as Leonard implies. As Stalin was negotiating with Hitler, Ehrenburg's articles stopped appearing in the Soviet press; he was too much the Jew and the outspoken opponent of Fascism. Following the signing of the Nonaggression Pact, Ehrenburg lost the ability to swallow solid food for eight months and prolonged his stay in Paris to protest Stalin's new alliance. Leonard seems to think Ehrenburg was never that vulnerable. But in the spring of 1940, his dacha in Peredelkino was taken, and he was publicly condemned as a defector, leaving his daughter Irina the subject of abusive late-night phone calls that could have come only from one source.
Leonard also refers to Ehrenburg's troubling encounters with Evgenia Gronfein, Babel's first wife, who lived in Paris for many years. It was cruel for Ehrenburg, in 1956, to tell her so abruptly about Babel's other widow and daughter in Moscow and to ask her to sign a statement that she and Babel were divorced, which wasn't true. I am convinced that he wanted to preserve Pirozhkova's status as Babel's legitimate widow (and heir) in Moscow. He always brought her copies of Western editions of Babel's works (I saw scores in her Moscow apartment in 1984), just as he brought foreign editions of Doctor Zhivago to Pasternak's family. Pirozhkova remained devoted to Ehrenburg, in part because of his solicitude for her and her family. When he died in 1967, she sat with his widow at the funeral and often stayed with her at the dacha. Ehrenburg could not save Babel, but, next to Babel's wives and children, he did more to preserve his memory and make his work available to generations who were supposed to have forgotten him.
THE COOING 'FEMINIST'
Thank you, thank you, thank you, to Susan J. Douglas and Meredith Michaels, for their review of Naomi Wolf's latest excretion, Misconceptions (oh, the delicious irony of the title that is apt in unintended ways) ["The Belly Politic," Nov. 26, 2001]. I urge women and friends of women everywhere to send this review to anyone interested or implicated in the debate about essentialist views of pregnancy and motherhood. Wolf's book is as pernicious as it is narcissistic, for two reasons: She is (was?) considered a feminist, and it is hard to argue with the authority of experience. If a writer speaks with the authority of the first person, especially the persuasive and pseudo-confessional narrative of self-discovery, it is usually cited as hard proof. The last thing women need is for a high-profile so-called feminist to start spouting essentialism. Her book can, and no doubt will, be used against women who try to put forward a different narrative of pregnancy. Here's a book by one of you feminists, we will be told. Read this and it will make you see what you should be feeling. If a feminist admits she has cuddle hormones and needs a man, then that must be what is best for all women, right? Wolf may not have intended for her narrative to be used against women who argue for a different experience of pregnancy, but that's exactly what will happen, and she must take responsibility for how her book will be used in the ongoing motherhood debates.
UNCLE MILTY, R.I.P.
Santa Monica, Calif.
My 88-year-old writing partner, Irv Brecher, had a rough week, losing two friends. And then he went to the Milton Berle funeral without me, the bastard. Jan Murray spoke ("way too fucking long," said Irv, "not offended" that he wasn't asked), and Red Buttons said some things. Rickles too. Larry Gelbart read a wonderful tribute.
"It was a show," Irv said. "It went two and a half hours, and then we all went over to the Rainbow Room for a feast at 4 o'clock."
Irv said both Gelbart and Sid Caesar came over and asked him why he didn't speak, since Milton Berle gave Irv his first job writing gags for him at the Loews State Theater in Manhattan, in March of 1933. Here's what Irv told me about his friend Milton: "He was, after all, 93. He had a great life. He was an original, outstanding at his craft, and he taught them all. I might not be here if it weren't for him. Your life turns on not only what you do, but what everyone else does."
About being at the Hillside cemetery Irv said, "The way it is these days, when I go there I leave the motor running."
"Are you going to Billy Wilder's funeral?" I asked him. (Irv and Billy took morning walks together around Holmby Park in Westwood for years. I wondered if they talked about writing and great filmmaking, etc. He told me no, "Wilder did birdcalls mostly, and the birds sneered at him.")
"No," Irv replied. "I'm not going to his funeral. And I'm trying to arrange not going to mine either." I was wondering what Red Buttons had said when Irv told me this about life and death: "When you're 88, time is of the essence. At my age, hurry."